Taking CSS Seriously

At Oasis Digital, we have spent much of our effort over the last several years creating complex “single page” web applications. There is much to say about that, but today I’m writing about one specific sliver: styling the application pages with CSS. To do good work at scale when using CSS to style an application (versus a one-off “webpage”), the only path to success is to take CSS seriously as a language, and study how to use it in an idiomatic, semantic, maintainable way.

Unfortunately, thinking about CSS in this way is considered far into “advanced” CSS territory, and these topics received almost no attention from the countless online and off-line resources to learn CSS.

What does it mean to take CSS seriously? Briefly, it means learning the technology and patterns of use in depth, by studying what others have done and thinking about why and how to solve problems.

Idiomatic CSS

CSS written by experts tends to follow many idioms. These are patterns that have been found useful again and again: a consistent order of selectors, consistent use of white space and other formatting, and so on. There is a popularly cited online resource explaining some of the most common idioms, and A List Apart (which you should probably read extensively) has a busy topic area around CSS.

Robust CSS

Do you always use the same browser, with your window the same size, with the same settings? Then your CSS is probably not robust at all. It is quite easy to accidentally style in such a way that the slightest disruption in the layout causes unexpected unpleasant results.

The way to robustness is exposure to ongoing change. Use multiple browsers, and switch often. Adjust your font size every day up or down, for a good reason or no reason. Change the width and height of your browser window, don’t just always leave it maximized at whatever very common screen size you happen to use. Do you work on a PC? Try a Mac sometimes. You work on a Mac? Your CSS-styled pages probably change in some minor but irritating way if you haven’t looked on a PC.

Good CSS is robust. It is specified sufficiently but not over-specified. A particular anti-pattern to avoid: layout some elements; observe their width on your particular browser and settings; set the width of an element that is supposed to contain them to a hard-coded number based on that single observed width; then watch what happens when some minor difference in font or other matter makes something a little bit wider than you expected.

Appropriate CSS

A hammer is a great tool, but not every problem is a nail. Grid systems are wonderful, but not for every element on every page. To take CSS seriously, we must learn when and where to use grid systems, ad hoc floats, that shiny new flexbox, and even an old-fashioned table.

Layered CSS

Many projects today start with a CSS framework like Bootstrap or Foundation. Working in this context requires a keen awareness of how your CSS interacts with that provided by the framework. It is common to see CSS which randomly and arbitrarily overrides rules set by such a framework, with no regard for what sense those framework provided rules made. The typical result: layer upon layer of overrides, trying to fix a resulting problem by adding layer upon layer of of more overrides.

The key to winning this battle of layers is to stop fighting. To use the delete key extensively, trimming away excess CSS to fix problems rather than adding more. Adjust variables provided by your framework, instead of ad hoc overwriting its calculated class attributes. Understand exactly what layers are needed and why.

Semantic CSS

“Semantic” means “pertaining to the meanings of words”. But the problem many of us have around semantics isn’t so much of wrong meaning, but of applying the wrong names to the right meaning.

It seems everyone is taught, on their CSS journey, about the evil of the in-line style attribute. As a result, we see in the wild many CSS classes like this:

Thus allowing the CSS user to type class=”float-right” instead of style=”float: right;”.

This of course misses the point of the admonition against in-line style completely. It is not the literal use of the style attribute that is the problem, it is that the idea behind CSS is to mark up content with classes which say something about what the content is, then use CSS separately to apply a visual layout and so on.

If you can look at the name of a CSS class and know exactly the style settings it contains, it is probably not a very good name. But if you can look at a piece of content, and tell what CSS class you should apply based on what kind of content it is, you probably have a very good name.

Did I mention, don’t actually write CSS itself?

CSS is lacking critical facilities for abstraction and removal of duplication. There are persuasive arguments floating around that CSS is too broken to ever be fixed; and I would not argue against that. But given that we are mostly stuck with CSS for many types of applications, it is necessary to use a layer on top of CSS. The usual contenders are Sass and LESS. This means that all of these goals mostly apply to the Sass or LESS you write, rather than to the CSS generated from Sass or LESS.

People who have studied both usually conclude that Sass is a better choice than LESS, and indeed the former is what we most often use.

(A helpful tip: if you are using a CSS framework like Bootstrap or Foundation, use a version of those which is supplied using whichever language about CSS you have chose. For example, if you use Sass, use the Bootstrap Sass version – don’t use the normal Bootstrap LESS or the bare Bootstrap CSS files!)

Maintainable CSS

The net result of all of the above is maintainable CSS. CSS which you can keep adding to, in an incremental way, as the application you are styling continues to grow and improve. CSS which you or someone else can understand a year later. CSS which you can be proud of when someone looks under the hood.

Balanced CSS

CSS is not ideal; it has gradually accumulated features since the emergence of the web and therefore has legacy concerns, among other problems. The CSS to solve any particular problem might not be able to meet all of these design qualities at the same time. Therefore, good quality CSS strikes a balance: semantic enough, robust enough, idiomatic enough, and so on.

Rapidly Written CSS

Some of the ideas here sound like they could take a long time to code – but good CSS is faster to complete – bad CSS burns up far more hours than good, in the quest to create a finished system.

Of course, mastering tools can take a long time. The payoff is that a master usually creates code (CSS or otherwise) with high “first time quality”.

</rant>

At Oasis Digital, we are not perfect. We do not yet do all of these things perfectly all the time; there is sometimes a tradeoff between delivery speed and polish. But we do take CSS seriously, and we work hard to move in the right direction along all these axes.

Resources

 

(Cross-posted to the Oasis Digital blog.)

Code Reviews – Use a gate, not a drive-by

Does your team / project use code reviews? If not, I suggest starting today. There are countless resources online about how and why to do code reviews; there are numerous code review tools, open source and commercial.

Who should review code? A great question, perhaps for other blog posts.

When should code be reviewed? Hopefully also great question, and the topic of this blog post.

Context

When making a recommendation, I’m trying to get in the habit of always mentioning the context, the situation in my work from which my recommendation arises. This is in response to seeing frustration when people try to follow advice, not realizing that their situation is completely unlike that of the writer.

Here ate Oasis Digital our context is mostly complex line-of-business applications, which are expected to live for a long time and are important to the business operations of the companies that use them. We are almost always replacing an existing system (which a company relies on) or expanding an existing system (which a company relies on).

Another critical part of our context: we have flexible and fast source control, and a group of developers who have learned how to use it competently. We have decoupled source control from build automation, so that we can perform builds of branches in progress without merging them to a mainline. We can achieve a sufficient degree of continuous integration without actually putting each change directly into the same code line.

Review Code Early

How long after code has been written should it be reviewed? Hours or days, not weeks. For this reason, we commit and push code frequently (to a disposable branch of course) where others can see it for early review. It can be a challenge to get past the ego-driven desire to make code perfect before exposing it to the scrutiny of others, but it is worthwhile. By exposing code to review and comment early in its life, a developer can get useful feedback early in a unit of work.

Review Code Often

Another anti-pattern of code review is to look at a given proposed change only once or twice. That is sensible for a very small change, but for a complex change to a complex system it is best to perform code review repeatedly as work proceeds. For example, consider a feature that takes four weeks to implement. Our typical approach, which I recommend to others (if their context is reasonably similar to ours, see above) is something like this:

  • Review the code a few days in.
  • Review the code progress once a week or so.
  • Review the code when it is nearly ready to be called “done” and to go in the mainline.
  • If there are fixes needed, review those promptly so as not to cause delay.

Review Code Now

Code waiting for review is a drag on the speed of development; the right time to review code is now. A quick review now is probably more valuable than a deep review deferred.

Review Code as a Gate

In some organizations, code review happens asynchronously and sporadically, after code is already part of a project. This risks software quality collapse. Once code is in the mainline of a product, it is arguably too late to review. If a reviewer finds a problem with code already in a system, there will be pressure to sweep that problem under the rug and move on, or to convince your that is not really a problem, or that quality doesn’t really matter, just this once.

The right answer is simple: use code review as a gate through which code must pass before it can become part of the mainline of the project. Use your source control system, and stack up proposed code changes that are nearly ready to go into the mainline. Then periodically perform your review process (whether it is in person, remote, synchronous, asynchronous, etc.). Once the code passes a final review process, then it goes in the mainline. If there are serious problems, the code sits in a branch, a developer improves it, and it tries again next time.

We have had excellent results with this approach, maintaining software quality for years on end even through ongoing development team turnover.

 

Opaque Binary Formats are Terrible

I’m looking at you, Crystal Reports!

Opaque binary file formats for development assets are a scourge on the software development community.

Here’s some context. At Oasis Digital we typically work on complex enterprise data systems. These systems have a long life, with multiple (or many) developers working concurrently and over time. These systems are important to the companies which use them, which is to say, we must not accidentally break things.

In that context, we’ve encountered the following problem on numerous occasions, using numerous tools, on multiple platforms, over many years. Today I’m going to pick on one specific and especially painful instance of it: report definitions.

We believe strongly in code review, where code is defined broadly to include things like the definition of a report. That definition can include SQL, layout information, styling, parameter definitions, and so on. Whenever a developer makes a change to a software system, another developer (often a more senior one) reviews the change to see exactly what is changed, and verify it appears correct, and that no accidental changes are included. In this way, we greatly reduce the incidence of accidentally changing or breaking something that was not supposed to be changed.

Code / change review is very common in most or all mature software development organizations.

For source code, almost universally represented in plain text, the mechanics of code change review are straightforward. The diff command, or any of 1000 tools for comparing files, can readily show the differences between version and an version M. (As an aside, whenever someone presents a mechanism for representing source code is something other than plain text, I dismiss it with a chuckle unless there is also a solid solution provided for the question of how to review changes.)

Happily, many reporting tools represent the layout and query information for a report in a text format. Sometimes it is a proprietary text format, sometimes it is XML; regardless of the ugliness, these all have the merit that it is possible to compare them as text and see what changed between two versions. Offhand, I would like to call out:

  1. Jasper Reports, in the Java world
  2. ReportBuilder, in the Delphi world

for doing the right thing: offering a text-based, diffable representation of a report definition.

Crystal Reports, though, is both a popular and problematic tool. It represents reports in an opaque binary format, for which a “diff” produces nothing readble. With only this in hand, “code review” of report change consists of:

  1. Run the old report
  2. Run the new report
  3. Hold them up next to each other and compare the output
  4. Hope that no accidental changes were made that would break the report for some parameter that wasn’t used for testing

I have heard that “Hope is not a strategy” and that is certainly the case here. Yet this tool (and others like it), an opaque binary representation of report definition leaves us with only hope.

A Way Out

I have read that Crystal Reports offers an API (object model) by which software can inspect and manipulate the report definition. Using this, it should be possible to write a tool which takes a report definition is input, and emits a text file as output, such that the text file contains a human readable definition of every important piece of information about the report definition. this simply adds a minor step to a review/diff process: run both the before and after representations through this conversion, and diff the outputs of the conversion.

To be effective, such a tool would need to produce a text representation which is both complete (which is to say, includes essentially everything that will be needed to re-create a report definition) and stable (which is to say, minor changes to the report definition produced by clicking around, result in minor changes to the text output)

Unfortunately, I have not been able to find such a tool. If anybody knows of one, I would love to hear about it.

Basics: Formatting Numbers for Tabular Display

Here is the first, in hopefully a series, of posts about basic software design. Though not nearly as sexy as a location-based mobile social network with behavioral profiling for ad optimization (probably a real thing), doing basic software design well is one of our “secrets” at Oasis Digital. So here goes.

Today’s topic is how numbers should be formatted for tabular display. This comes up quite frequently in data-centric applications. For an example, consider this mockup of a working-hours-per-person display screen, example 1:

It looks quite nice with the numbers formatted trivially as whole numbers. What if someone worked 4.56 hours, though? How would that appear? To accomodate that possibility, you might always show two digits to the right of the decimal point like so, example 2:

… which is OK, but not great – all those extra zeros distract the viewer from the essence of the data. One thing you should never do, though, is something like this:

This is horrible. If you feel tempted to write software that displays data like this intentionally, please step away from the computer now. This breaks the rules of writing numbers that we all learned in primary school, probably before the age of 10: always line up the decimal point. Instead, for that particular set of numbers, the is reasonable:

So is the answer to always display as many decimal digits as the data could possibly have? Perhaps, but only if you are unable to dynamically change the format based on the contents of the data. Examples 2 and 4 show a safe but unimpressive approach.

If you have the tools and skills to create a high quality solution, aim higher: dynamically choose the right number of decimal digits, to fit the specific data in question, then apply that same format uniformly to all the numbers. The output will therefore look like #1 if the data permits, and like #4 if the data requires it, but will not needlessly fill a column with 0s as in #3. This is more work, but is a more polished, professional result.

In the Arena

Almost every day at some point I wander over to Hacker News, which has some great discussion, along with some less great discussion, among people pursuing or aspiring to pursue a software startup or similar business. Likewise with local events (like ITEN STL offers), and even more so the Business of Software conference earlier this month. (experiences)

I used to have a software product business myself, a vertical market SaaS firm. Now that I’ve been out of that for over a year, the thing I miss most is the feeling of being “in the arena”, of having a speculative product out there for people to buy. To be out there is both terrifying and exhilarating. I have heard it said that there are “product people” and “consulting people”, and looking back it is clear to me that I am mostly in the Product category.

Unlike some product people (like Amy Hoy, whom I admire greatly!) I don’t think it’s necessary to swear off one thing to do the other. Consulting (building software for clients) is very satisfying, especially when working with a team of great people (and a group of very competent customers) like we have at Oasis Digital.

So while I’m going to keep building software for other people, I’m also going to go back to the marketplace with speculative products. This time it will be products in the plural, some subset of:

  • Web/SaaS software
  • iPad software
  • iPhone / iPod Touch software
  • Android software (by year-end the stores will be piled high with Android tablets)
  • Or possibly HTML5/etc software to address all of the above
  • Backend / data / system management software
  • Or even, possibly, locally installed desktop software

I apologize for the vagueness of this list; but I agree with Derek Sivers about keeping one’s specific goals to oneself so my voluminous and tedious notes on exactly what products to offer, will remain offline.

I Admire the Ruby Community

(I have cross-posted this to the Oasis Digital blog.)

 

Over the last year or so, I’ve spent perhaps 50 hours rethinking what kind of business Oasis Digital should be. I’ve studied business models. I’ve made spreadsheets. I’ve looked around that numerous other consulting firms. The results of all that… are slowly emerging. Stay tuned.

In the meantime, though, I noticed something very interesting: the firms that appeal to me most, in terms of web site content, community involvement, portfolios, marketing approach, etc., are disproportionately Ruby or Ruby-Rails shops. I admire the “vibe” of the Ruby community:

  • Strong focus on design, to the extent that some Ruby-centric development firms have web sites which could pass for visual-design firms instead.
  • Ruby developers seem unusually aware of the extent to which syntax and conciseness matter.
  • There is much discussion of craftsmanship, though I’d need to survey a broader swath of production code to determine whether this discussion has a basis in reality.
  • Seemingly contrary to the above factors, Rubyists also appear to be unusually pragmatic.
  • This pragmatism translates to real-world financial impact: many developers make a good living with Ruby, and many firms are very happy with their Ruby projects.
  • Ruby events are numerous, nationwide.

There are numerous Ruby- or Ruby-Rails-centric development firms, and Oasis Digital is not one of them (we are perhaps a 5%-or-so Ruby shop, with Ruby expertise to effectively attack automated sysadmin, integration projects, and so on). We aren’t going to become a Ruby-centric-firm, either; and there are some technical aspects of Ruby that don’t impress me.

Rather, we want to bring some of the cultural qualities seen in the Ruby community, to other languages and tools. We care about design much more than most firms, and it shows in our GUIs. We care about user experience, and we are obsessed with quality, working results.