Getting back into front-end web development

By: on March 6, 2014

I’ve been working on a small SPA (Single Page Application) – just HTML, CSS and JavaScript statically served and doing its thing entirely in the browser. I learned a great deal throughout the project, but here are some of the things that strike me as most valuable.

Get a good workflow going

I used Grunt to setup a nice build system that is mostly a joy during development. It took a while to evolve my Gruntfile, but now when I edit a file, the results are immediately refreshed in the browser (I don’t even have to hit cmd-R). I can deploy to S3 test, staging and live sites with a single command that takes about 3 seconds. My SASS files are compiled down to minified CSS, my JS is minified with source maps etc.

The hardest part of using Grunt is figuring out how to configure it and its many contrib plugins. I could have done with a definitive reference or perhaps I could have used Yeoman to give me an out of the box solution. However I recognised that I was always going to have to figure out the guts of Grunt so I think I really was better off bespoking it from the start. I’m glad I did as now I have a tight setup that does precisely what I want and that I understand completely.

Now it seems there is a new kid on the scene, Gulp – nicely introduced in this tutorial blog post. I will definitely be looking closely at that for my next project, with the piping approach looking like the key step beyond Grunt, along with nicer syntax. I’d also look at Browserify, for a nicer way to piece together the JS bits.

Learn JavaScript properly

To the uninitiated, JavaScript is fairly surprising in many subtle ways, and though I can grok the prototype-based inheritance fairly easily, the scoping rules caught me out repeatedly. This was especially the case as I tried to create JQuery plugins with private methods and state. Eventually a simple old article by grand-daddy of JavaScript writing Douglas Crockford gave me the vital clues I was missing.

Really I should just read his book, and I would recommend that anyone else doesn’t just attempt to learn JavaScript as they go, but takes some time to pro-actively figure out the core concepts – it will pay off in short order.

jQuery is non-negotiable

And the award for most indispensable library goes to: jQuery. Seriously, it should be baked into the browsers or the ECMAScript standard. The nicest thing about it is I can pretty much just guess at the API and be right most of the time, though reading the docs usually reveals new conveniences that go further than I even imagined.

Browser quirks can be a living nightmare

JavaScript itself is fairly reliable, especially with judicious use of mature libraries like jQuery that paper over the cross-browser DOM cracks. CSS in complicated scenarios is where it all seems to go wrong however.

It’s amazing how broken/different some browsers are. Here are just a few highlights, though every day brought tens of new oddities and associated workarounds.

  • Mobile Safari on iOS 7 reports the viewport height inconsistently (depending on how you access it) leading to bad layout and horrible JavaScript workarounds.
  • Use of -webkit-overflow-scrolling:touch causes the hardware accelerated renderer to kick in, resulting in various flickers, flashes and flitches with content not rendering.
  • IE 10 on Windows 8 shows back/forward overlays at the left/right of the screen when your mouse moves near them, obscuring links in those locations.
  • Chrome running on Retina Macs suffers from strange graphical glitches when running CSS Animations, but is fine with CSS Transitions. However other browsers/platforms really need CSS Animations to get smooth, hardware accelerated movement. In my case it was necessary to implement both approaches and select using browser detection.
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