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Designing by Making: your process for arranging furniture can point toward a good process for UI design

The last time you had to arrange the furniture in your home — did you create a design first? No. You had a design idea, and then immediately jumped into implementing your idea by moving the sofa and table around until the result felt good.


Moving Furniture
Hmm… let’s try putting this over here…


Consider these attributes of the typical process for arranging furniture:

  1. You do it yourself. If you have enough money, you might tell movers where to put the heavy things first, but you’re still directly involved, and you’ll end up pushing things around yourself before it’s all over.
  2. You work directly with the furniture and the space, without recourse to a single design artifact. Think about it: in the time it would take to create a scale model of a room and the furniture to sufficient accuracy that it could actually inform your decisions, you can finish the task of moving the real furniture into place.
  3. You can never predict whether a layout will completely work until you’ve actually gotten things in place. Once the pieces are in place, you always discover something unexpected. You move your desk so it faces the door, then sit in the desk chair and realize you can’t see the view out the window. So you turn the desk around to face the window, then get a creepy feeling that someone might sneak in the door and creep up behind you without your knowledge. Each layout you try teaches you something.
  4. The process is inherently iterative. You start with an idea, and iterate through various layouts until you converge on an acceptable result (or you’re tired of moving stuff around).

You can design software user interfaces this way too.

I had a chance to speak about my own design process at a talk I gave last month at the California College of the Arts in San Francisco, to an engaged audience of interesting students in the school’s MBA in Design Strategy program. There I discussed how my own design process has changed substantially in the last five years to become something I might call designing by making. In this process, the design of a software experience is inseparable from the coding of that experience. In this regard, the process has a lot in common with arranging furniture.

Many contemporary design process artifacts like field interviews, a wall of post-it notes, and paper prototypes reflect an increasingly antiquated premise: that building a real thing is much more expensive than producing a design. Historically, it has been true that designing software with a complex user interface was a minor cost compared to the labor of actually writing the code. In my early days at Microsoft, one might have seen a ratio of one designer to five to eight engineers (developers and testers), because even primitive tasks like obtaining user input or positioning interface controls in a window entailed such extensive, labor-intensive coding. It seemed sensible to invest considerable thought and time in the design phase because it could be many months before the designer would get to experience the actual product for the first time. Unfortunately, that moment of enlightenment often didn’t come until the fully-functional pre-beta builds arrived roughly two-thirds of the way through the product cycle. At that point, when the designer inevitably has new insights into the best design, any big design changes would often needed to be deferred until the next version.

Much software is still designed this way, even though the economics of user interface implementation have changed radically. The effort required to create useful, functional, beautiful, reliable, and performant software application user interfaces has been dropping for years, and this trend will continue for the foreseeable future. About five years ago, the technology reached the point where it became possible for me to create web applications directly. Rather than working in Photoshop, Microsoft Word, or a prototyping tool as before, and handing these designs off to an engineer, I can now directly create the user interface design in code myself.

This is roughly as expensive as the old way of doing things, but with the significant advance that I am now working with a functional artifact — a working user interface — from the very beginning. This turns out to be a transformative difference. Just as you can never predict all the ramifications of a particular furniture layout, you can never fully predict the strengths and weaknesses of a UI design.

Instead, I currently believe it’s best to design something by making it. This means it’s generally not worth a great deal of time to consider the hypothetical implications of a theoretical design. (“Will the user find this clear?”, “Will this meet the user’s needs?”) It’s faster to just build something that actually works, then immediately observe whether it is good or not. Instead of viewing design as a predecessor to making, this is designing by making. The process looks just like the process above:

  1. Do both the design and coding yourself.
  2. Work directly in code, without recourse to other design artifacts. If you’re working with good tools, in the time it would take to create an accurate static image of what you want, with all the specs that would go along with that, you can instead create a functional design that actually does what you want.
  3. Know that you will be unable to predict whether a design will completely work until you actually having a working interface.
  4. Build your schedule around iteration. You start with an idea, and iterate through various approaches until you converge on an acceptable result (or you’re tired of moving stuff around).

This process isn’t for everyone. There are software domains that don’t entail a user interface (Mars landers, say), where a traditional, process-heavy design phase obviously holds true. And not all designers can code, nor can all coders design. But I believe that designing by making does allows someone who can do both well to iterate much faster from an idea to a usable interface than a designer who is forced to rely on someone else to write the code.

I believe that in the near future, most software application design will look like this. The trends simplifying the coding of user interfaces will continue and accelerate, as better design/coding tools permit the construction of better design/coding tools. Component-oriented user interface frameworks will allow people to spend less time designing and coding the details of common patterns.

Furthermore, companies with experience in creating tools like Adobe are now waking up to the realities of a post-Flash world, in which the open web is the real application platform to focus on. (Microsoft is also slowly waking up to the prospect of a post-Windows client world, although that change will take much longer, and I’m not sure they’ll be able to change fast enough to stay relevant.) Generally speaking, I have high hopes for innovation in the realm of tools and frameworks, all of which should make it more and more practical for someone like you to do both the design and coding yourself.

Today, it is already possible to have a design process built around coding that is as efficient — or, often, more efficient — than a traditional, artifact-heavy, pre-coding design process. What’s more, the tool chain will ultimately improve to the point where designing a user interface will be as fast as arranging furniture. In the time it takes you to say, “Let’s try moving the bookcase over there”, and actually move the bookcase, you’ll be able to say, “Let’s try a tabbed navigation approach”, and actually switch a design to using tabbed navigation. Imagine what it will be like to design software like that.

An axiomatic approach to defining user interface elements: building complex elements from simple ones

Just as geometry builds up complex results from simple axioms, and programming languages build up complex constructs from simple primitives, it should be possible to create complex user interface elements from simple elements. But the lack of great building blocks for web user interface components causes people to waste a colossal amount of time reproducing common behaviors or, worse, forces them to settle for something quick but suboptimal.

Take something as basic as tabs. Every web UI package includes a widget or component that produces a set of tabs, such as the typical example from jQuery UI:



While a tab set may seem to be an irreducible unit of user interface complexity, we can actually decompose its behavior into smaller, simpler chunks:

  1. Ensuring a single element within a set is “active” at any given time. Here, only one of the tab buttons is in the active state. There are many other manifestations of this behavior. Single-selection list boxes, for example, also have a notion that a single item in the list is active.
  2. Showing a single element a time. The main region of the tab set shows a single page which corresponds to the active tab button. The active page is the only one that’s shown; the non-active pages are hidden. This behavior comes up in situations other than tabs. For example, photo “carousel” controls let a user page through photos one at a time, generally with previous/next buttons instead of a tab strip.
  3. Showing a set of identical elements that correspond to items in a list. The strip of tab buttons across the top has an internal consistency: every tab button is represented with the same type of button.
  4. Positioning one collection of elements directly above another. Here, the strip of tab buttons is stacked on top of the tabbed pages. This kind of layout seems so simple as to not deserve consideration. However, in current web browsers, this can be frustratingly difficult to achieve in the common cases where the size of the tab set is flexible. Suppose you want the tab set to fill the viewport, or a region of the viewport. The tab strip should consume a given height (which for a variety of reasons should not be fixed beforehand in, say, pixels), and the remainder of the space given over to the tabbed pages. This type of layout can be achieved with a CSS flexbox, but at least for a little while longer, many app developers will need to support older browsers (i.e., IE).
  5. Giving UI elements a description which can shown elsewhere. The pages shown within the tab set are rectangular regions, but the name of the tab is shown outside. It’s fairly common to want to give a UI element a user-friendly name like this.
  6. Letting a user tap or click a button to achieve a result. That is, the elements in the tab strip behave like buttons.

It should be possible to create UI classes that implement each of these more fundamental behaviors or aspects. It should then be possible to exploit these behaviors on their own, or recombine them with other behaviors to produce other recognizable user interface controls. In effect, we should be able to arrive at fundamental behaviors that behave like the axioms in a mathematical domain or, alternatively, like atoms in a physical system of elements.

The domain of computer science has much to say on the topic of axiomatic design. Programming languages are often predicated on the notion that you can boil down everything you’d want to do in the language to a tiny set of primitive functions. It’s only this small set of primitives which must be written in a lower-level language (e.g., a machine language). Everything else can be built up in the language itself. This not only keeps things clean, it ensures the language’s popularity and survival by facilitating the porting of the language to new platforms — only the primitives must be rewritten, and all the remaining code built on top of the primitives can be used as is. The original example of this axiomatic principle in language design was Lisp, whose story Paul Graham recounts in his article The Roots of Lisp. (The full article is available on his site in the original Postscript version, or in various converted PDF versions.) From his article:

In 1960, John McCarthy… showed how, given a handful of simple operators and a notation for functions, you can build a whole programming language.

[McCarthy’s] ideas are still the semantic core of Lisp today. It’s not something that McCarthy designed so much as something he discovered. It’s not intrinsically a language for AI [artificial intelligence] or for rapid prototyping, or for any other task at that level. It’s what you get (or one thing you get) when you try to axiomatize computation. … By understanding [Lisp] you’re understand what will probably the main model of computation well into the future.

Can we determine a similar axiomatic deconstruction of user interface elements? That’s a topic I’m acutely interested in, and I believe the answer is yes. Even through graphical user interfaces span a range of devices, platforms, and frameworks, the underlying collection of distinct user interface behaviors is quite consistent: clicking one thing something makes something else appear; items in lists are given consistent representations and behavior; modes (for both better and worse) constrain the user’s attention and powers; and so on. It should be possible to boil those consistent behaviors into reusable code.

The result of this decomposition is a set of UI primitives which is significantly bigger than the canonical tiny set of user interface controls: a push button, a radio button, a check box, a text box. Of all the aspects numbered above, only #6 (push buttons) are available as a native browser control. Web developers are generally forced to recreate all the other aspects through combinations of CSS and JavaScript. That's inefficient and error-prone. As noted above, even something as seemingly straightforward as stacking two regions on top of one another can prove unexpectedly complex.

The actual set of web UI primitives is probably an order of magnitude larger than what browsers expose as interactive UI controls. At the same time, the set of really general purpose contemporary UI (see this article for a breakdown of UI elements by context-specificity) is not so large it can't be enumerated or understood. For today’s typical mobile or web application, I believe a reasonably comprehensive collection of UI primitives would number in the 100 – 200 range.

What would those primitives be? My work on the QuickUI Catalog is an attempt this question. It’s a work in progress, and is by no means complete. It currently includes controls which shouldn’t be there (they’re really just sample uses of an underlying component), and on the other hand doesn’t (yet) include enough controls for common situations like mobile. Nor is the set of controls completely stable yet. I occasionally realize two controls exhibit similar behavior whose implementation should (or shouldn’t) be shared, which results in both minor and major refactorings. Nevertheless, the Catalog already represents a highly useful starting point for creating application UIs.

Let’s return to the tab set example above. The QuickUI Catalog includes a Tabs control for this purpose, which can be used as is. But that Tabs control is simply a combination of lower-level components corresponding to the attributes listed above:

  1. A Sequence base class. A Sequence control keeps track of which one (and only one) of its children is currently active.
  2. A Modes control. Extends the Sequence class to hide everything but the active child.
  3. A List control. Maps an array of internal data items to an array of user-visible controls.
  4. A VerticalPanels control. Stacks things vertically. This inherits from SimpleFlexBox, a user interface polyfill which uses a CSS flexbox for layout on modern browsers, and a manual engine for layout on older browsers.
  5. A Tab control. Associates a description property with an arbitrary block of content. It's this description the Tabs control displays in a List of buttons across the top.
  6. A BasicButton control. This wraps the browser’s native <button> as a component. Among other things, this allows a BasicButton to be used to render items in the List (above) to create the strip of tab buttons.

All these derive from a common Control base class.

We can show the relationships between all these classes in a graph, where a solid line represents an “is a” relationship (one class derives from another) and a dotted line shows a “has a” relationship (one class makes use of instances of another class):


This arrangement entails a lot more pieces than a typical web user interface platform. The browser itself only provides a native button. Most existing web user interface frameworks provide some button class wrapper (such as BasicButton here) and a tab set class (Tabs). They may or may not expose a general purpose UI component base class (here, Control). The tab set class is typically fixed in a monolithic implementation, and can only be modified via parameters the framework designers have anticipated beforehand.

Traditional client-side UI frameworks (e.g., Windows Presentation Foundation) do have rich class hierarchies, although even their UI primitives tend to be too course-grained. And contemporary web UI frameworks rarely have good building blocks. (Some people claim the Sencha framework does, but it's unfortunately encumbered with developer licensing fees, and requires you to build your app on top of a proprietary substrate. To me, that's moving in the exact opposite direction of web development trends.)

The main obstacles to UI like this on the web may have multiple causes, including the fact that the web's primary client-side programming language JavaScript, still has no native support for traditional object-oriented classes. Moreover, the browser doesn't yet expose a model for modular component composition, which creates a lot of work for a UI framework's creators.

In the above implementation of a tab set, all the lower-level pieces are directly available to the user interface designer and developer. These can be used on their own, or combined with other types of elements to create other user interface elements. And, significantly, new elements constructed with this approach are, by default, extensible and recombinable in their own right. In a subsequent post, I plan to show some of the other sorts of UI controls which can be created by combining some of the pieces above in different ways.

As noted above, this Catalog implementation isn’t perfect. Among other things, there are inherent limitations on what you can achieve with a classic single inheritance hierarchy. But, overall, this feels like a promising direction, and in practice is a highly efficient way to create web apps. Above all, this axiomatic approach feels like the right paradigm for building UI.

McCarthy's big advance with Lisp wasn't to create programming language primitives — all programming langauges have primitives. His insight was that the primitives in programming languages of the time weren't primitive enough. Instead, you should break a language into irreducible axioms, and let people combine those axioms to create any new language functions they need. The functions you create with those Lisp primitives are just as powerful as any pre-packaged functions created with those same primitives by the language's designers. That is, there's nothing special the language designer can do you which you cannot also do.

Similarly, a UI platform should give you a powerful set of axiomatic appearances and behaviors and a means to combine them to create new elements which are every bit as powerful as those elements that come bundled with the platform. This is why attempts to build a tiny handful of new controls into web browsers  is almost completely uninteresting to me. A new date picker in the browser, to take just one example, is just never going to solve your date picker needs. It's like the FORTRAN committee adding yet another hard-baked statement to the language. What's infinitely more interesting is a UI platform that gives you the building blocks you need to build a date picker of your own that's as powerful as anything in the browser itself.

QuickUI 0.9.2 released

Version 0.9.2 is primarily a bug-fix release. Beyond a variety of minor fixes, there are just a couple of notable changes:

  1. Using $.control( element ) on an existing element to cast the element to the correct subclass of Control now returns null (instead of undefined) if the given element is not a control.
  2. A bug has been fixed which prevented quickui.js from loading in IE8. Thanks to QuickUI user Toussaint for reporting this bug and helping to test the fix!

The release of 0.9.2 coincides with the release of version 0.9.2 of the QuickUI Catalog, which includes the following:

  1. Modes now derives from a new base class called Sequence, a general-purpose class for any linear sequence of elements that can be navigated via a next() and previous() method. Modes now focuses on showing just one element of a Sequence at a time. As part of this change, Modes.activeChild() has been renamed to Modes.activeElement().
  2. SlidingPages has been renamed SlidingPanels (since its contained elements aren’t necessarily pages). The class now also derives from Sequence. Finally, SlidingPanels has been updated to take advantage of CSS transitions on browsers that support them, falling back to a jQuery animation on older browsers.
  3. LateralNavigator has been refactored to handle two general cases: first, navigating through a Sequence of elements, and second navigating through an abstract axis like time. The former case is specifically addressed with a new class called SequenceNavigator. The latter case is used in CalendarMonthNavigator.
  4. An issue that prevented CalendarMonthNavigator from correctly vertically aligning its heading elements has been fixed. CalendarMonthNavigator now also uses a new class, MonthAndYear, to show both the month and year instead of just the month name.
  5. A new VerticalAlign class handles the general problem of vertically aligning child elements in older browsers.
  6. A new Carousel class derives from SequenceNavigator, and uses a SlidingPanels class to provide a sliding transition between elements in the sequence.
  7. The TabSet class has been renamed to Tabs.

This release is also notable as the first one in which Catalog controls have been written (and, some cases, rewritten) in CoffeeScript.

The Web Components spec should add support for multiple, named, DOM-valued properties

At last week’s Google I/O 2012 conference, Chrome engineers Alex Komoroske and Dimitri Glazkov gave a talk called, The Web Platform’s Cutting Edge, a good overview of Web Components and custom elements in particular. The demo code shown in that presentation does point to an issue with the current Web Components spec that could seriously constrain the ease with which components can be written and shared. I’ll lay out the case here in hopes this problem can be fixed at an early stage.

But first: A word of appreciation

Authoring a spec for a new standard like Web Components is generally a thankless task, as is the tireless work of promulgating the standard through presentations like the one at Google I/O. So, before saying anything else: a big Thank You to Alex and Dimitri for their work on HTML Templates, Custom Elements, and Shadow DOM. Everything which follows is meant to support your work, not put it down.

Background of the problem

As I’ve blogged about before, I’m a passionate fan of web UI components and believe they will transform UI development. The ability to define new elements for HTML is something designers and developers have long wanted but, until now, could only dream about. In the demo, Alex and Dimitri use Chrome’s early implementation of the proposed spec to create custom elements. They elegantly combine these elements to produce a custom UI component for a user poll:

Web Component Poll

This poll user interface is a large component comprised of sub-components for accordions (or, later in the demo, tabs) and the big iconic choice buttons in the poll for “Semantics”, “Offline & Storage”, etc. All these components are defined with declarative markup.

I enthusiastically agree with the presenters that declarative HTML, including the ability to define custom elements, results in UI code that can be easier to read than a comparable imperative solution in JavaScript. And to its credit, most of the demo code shown in the presentation is self-explanatory.

However, one aspect of the code really jumped out at me as a serious limitation of the current spec: a component host can only pass a single DOM content subtree to the component. As I’ll try to show, I believe that could seriously limit the degree to which a component can expose a meaningful API.

Consider the markup behind those big “choice” buttons. Each choice component includes an icon, a short text summary used as a label, and longer descriptive text that appears in a tooltip on hover. You can think of that per-choice data as, in effect, three public properties of the choice component:

<element name=”x-choice” extends=”div” constructor=”ChoiceControl”>
        <div id=”choice”>
            <div id=”icon” class=”mask”></div>
            <content select=”h3:first-of-type”></content>
                <content select=”*”></content>

The code above makes use of the proposed <content> element to select specific portions of the DOM tree (using CSS selectors) and incorporate them into the component’s shadow DOM. With that in place, the code for the overall poll component (i.e., the choice host) can instantiate choice buttons with the following markup:

<x-choice value=”semantics”>
    <p>Giving meaning to structure, semantics are front and…</p>
<x-choice value=”offline-storage”>
    <h3>Offline & Storage</h3>
    <p>Web apps can start faster and work even if there is no…</p>

So the first code fragment effectively defines a choice component with three public properties (although these aren’t actually class properties). The second code fragment shows the creation of two instances of that choice component, filling in two of the three choice properties. It’s not shown where the icon property is filled in, but it’s presumably done through styling.

All looks fine so far, but there are some serious issues lurking here.


The root issue here is that, as currently speced, Web Components can only accept a single DOM-valued content property via markup. This leads to a profusion of problems:

  1. Asking developers to tease apart component content will mean work for devs, and produce inconsistent results.

    Why, exactly, is the choice component using the <h3> tag to specify the text label for the button? Because this component has two textual properties, and the current Web Components spec only lets the developer pass one DOM content subtree to a component. So the component’s author developer has to somehow let the component’s users pack more than one property into the content, and then the dev has to crack that content to extract those properties. The question of how to crack that single content subtree into multiple properties is left entirely up to the developer. The tool given to the developer for this purpose is CSS selectors, which at first glance seems powerful. Unfortunately, it’s also a recipe for inconsistency. Every developer will have the freedom—and chore—to approach this problem their own way, guaranteeing the emergence of a handful of different strategies, plus a number of truly bizarre solutions. It’s as if you were programming in a system where functions could only accept a single array. As it turns out, we already have a good, common example of a such a system: command line applications. Every command-line application has some main() function that’s handed a single array of command line options, and the application has to decide what to do with them. Although conventions eventually arose with respect to the order and meaning of arguments, there’s still a wide variety of approaches. Some apps rely on argument position, some rely on single-letter flags (“-a”), some rely on full-word named parameters (“–verbose”), some have idiosyncratic microgrammars (e.g., chmod permissions), and many applications support a rich combination of all these approaches. Parsing arguments is tedious, boring work. In the early days, a developer throwing an app together might do the absolute minimum work necessary. The result was often inconsistent or incomplete argument support. The dev might eventually be forced to hack on their app until they finally had a roughly functional command line parser. These days, developers can rely on language features, or libraries like Python’s argparse, to “crack” the argument array into a meaningful structure which can be more easily inspected. In particular, it’s invaluable to a developer to be able to directly inspect specific arguments by name. The use of CSS selectors does remove some of this tedium, but it still leaves devs without a consistent way to refer to component properties by name, thereby leaving the door wide open for inconsistency. A dev might decide to use DOM structure, HTML tags, element classes, or a combination of all of these to demarcate properties. This will make it much harder for devs to share components, to swap out one component for another, and so on. It would be better if we could learn from the command-line argument example now and head off this inconsistency.
  2. HTML semantics are nearly meaningless when used to identify parameters.

    In the Google I/O demo, the developer of the choice component elected to use HTML tags within the single content subtree to identify properties. In this case, they decided that the first <h3> element in the content would identify the summary text, and everything else would be used as the longer text description. But why use <h3> for this purpose? The W3C spec says a heading tag like <h3> should be used to, “briefly describe the topic of the section it introduces”. These choices aren’t introducing sections, so that can’t be the the case here. Neither is this <h3> being used to reflect the rank of an element in a hierarchical document structure. In all likelihood, the <h3> is used here, as it often is in practice, to mean something like, “somewhat prominent, but not too prominent”. Visually this usually translates to, “bold text, a little bigger than the body text”. At least, that seems to be how <h3> is being used in this component. There’s nothing really wrong with that, but it’s clearly arbitrary. Other developers might easily make a different decision. Later, in the very same demo, the code for the poll component accepts the text label for a different Voting button through the use of a <label> element. So in one place in this app, a button’s label is specified with an <h3>, but elsewhere in the same app, a button’s label is specified with a <label>. I don’t think this reflects any particular negligence on the part of the demo’s developers. I think it’s a latent issue in any scheme that relies on HTML elements for something than the original purpose. Perhaps the code’ s developers did have some reason in mind for using <label> in one place and <h3> in another, but the point is that the reason is not obvious to another party looking at the code. The same arbitrary nature of tag choice here applies to use of the <aside> tag to identify the choice description. Try this: show the poll screen shot above to 3 web developers, and ask them which HTML tag they would use to specify the tooltip that should appear when the user mouses over a choice button. I’d be surprised if even one of them picked the <aside> tag. Is the tooltip content here really, as the W3C description says for the <aside> element, “tangentially related to the content around the aside element, and which could be considered separate from that content”? Well, not really. But, maybe; that’s a debatable point. The fact it’s debatable is what’s at issue here. In contrast, here’s a tautological statement which wouldn’t generate debate: the choice description in the tooltip is the choice description in the tooltip. The local semantics here aren’t in question. So it’s a shame the property can’t be described in contextual terms like “description”, or “tooltip”. The fact that the component is using HTML elements to identify arguments appears sensible, but in practice will be nearly meaningless. Every single time a dev needs to create a new component property, they’ll pick from the 100-odd HTML elements. Their selection may depend on their experience, their mood, the phase of the moon, and which handful of HTML elements they haven’t already used for other properties on the same component. It’s highly likely a different developer (or the same developer on a different day) would make a different selection of HTML elements for the same properties. Imagine an object-oriented programming language that forced you to give class properties one of 100 sanctioned property names: “index”, “count”, “name”, etc. Evereyone’s classes would look consistent, but it would be an utterly false consistency. That’s effectively what we’ll get if component authors are forced to choose HTML tags to identify component properties.
  3. Use of CSS selectors hinders a developer’s ability to add new properties.

    Suppose the author of this component needs to add a new property to this choice component. Maybe they want to add a “More about this choice” link to each choice; this link should navigate to another page with more details on that poll choice. Following the example of the <h3> for the choice summary, they decide to define this link property by extracting the first <a> tag in the content to be the link to the “More about this choice” page. Perhaps, following their use of the “h3:first-of-type” selector above, they decide to pick out this <a> tag with the similar CSS selector “a:first-of-type”. If they do so, this component author will inadvertently screw up any component user who happened to include an <a> tag somewhere in the description. Suppose a user of this component has already created some code for a choice like this:
    <x-choice value=”semantics”>
            Semantics in <a href=”…”>HTML5</a> applications…
    The “a:first-of-type” selector for the “More about this choice” link will accidentally pick up the existing link, thereby breaking this use of the component. The component author could issue a “Breaking Change” notice, warning everyone to include an <a> tag before the choice description. But even that wouldn’t help someone who, for whatever reason, needed to embed an <a> inside of the <h3>. The use of selectors here could be made more robust by using the child selector “>”, as in “> h3:first-of-type”. But this gets verbose, and again, isn’t likely to be a universal convention, and inconsistent use of the child selector will only add to the confusion. The fundamental problem is that using CSS selectors for this purpose is inherently fragile.
  4. Arbitrary parameter structure is brittle.

    The fragility of using CSS selectors remains even if one tries to avoid the use of arbitrary HTML elements. Suppose you decide to use element position to identify components. You’ll still up a component which is hard to update. Here, a relevant case study is the existing of positional function parameters in most programming languages. To take just one example, consider JavaScript functions. Suppose you’ve defined a function with three parameters: “function foo(a, b, c) {…}”. If you now want to add a new parameter “d”, you have to add it to the end of the argument list to avoid breaking existing users of your function. This can easily produce a function whose parameter order feels unnatural. And to use the new “d” parameter, a function caller must supply the intermediate arguments a, b, and c, even if those are irrelevant to the function call at hand. To avoid these problems, programming languages tend to eventually evolve named function parameters. Functions with named parameters are inherently more future-proof and, importantly, allow callers to only specify the parameters they care about. The lesson of positional function parameters applies to trying to parse component properties out of the DOM content subtree. Having learned this lesson in countless programming languages, it would be nice to just jump straight to a reasonable solution which allowed for named component properties. While CSS selectors represent a powerful parsing tool, much of that power is completely unnecessary in this context — and some people will inevitably put that extra power to poor use.
  5. Subclasses will compete for parameters with their base classes.

    The above situations quickly deteriorate further when one envisions extending an existing component via subclassing. Subclassing is a crucial means of efficiency in component development, in which the behavior of one component can be specialized for new purposes. As just one case, over 33% of the controls in the QuickUI Catalog are subclasses of other Catalog controls. For example, both DateComboBox and ListComboBox extend ComboBox, which itself extends PopupSource. This separation of concerns is vital to keep the code clean, organized, and maintainable. Such subclasses would likely become unworkable as Web Components, because each level of the class hierarchy will be competing with its ancestors and descendants as they all tried to extract properties from the single DOM content subtree permitted by the Web Components spec. If the choice class extracts an <h3> element from the content, then that element is effectively invisible to the <content> selectors of its subclasses. (Or, if you let subclasses have first shot at the content, then the elements they pull out are effectively invisible to their base classes.) This significantly complicates point #3 above (using CSS selectors to pull out properties from the DOM content subtree makes it hard to add new properties). Consider a subclass of the choice component above called, say, special-choice. Perhaps the author of special-choice has decided to use the HTML <h4> element to identify a particular property. Now the author of the base choice component decides to add a new property, and elects to use <h4> for this purpose themselves. This has the effect of breaking the special-choice subclass. Obviously, such naming conflicts can arise in regular OOP classes, but here the likelihood of conflict is much greater because of the highly constrained vocabulary of HTML elements. Using DOM structure to select properties (point #4, above) is even more brittle when one considers subclasses. If a component class decides to use DOM element position to select content for a given property, and someone creates a subclass that likewise uses element position, the original base class’ API is effectively frozen. Suppose the base class defines a <content> element with selector “:nth-child(3)” , and the subclass goes ahead and uses a <content> with selector “:nth-child(4)”. How is the base class supposed to add support for a new property now? They can’t use position 4, because a subclass is already using that. The situation could be worked around by requiring not just specific tags, but also specific class names, but this has problems of its own (see below). As currently drafted, the Web Components spec seems highly likely to close off the possibility of rich component hierarchies. Most component developers will probably elect to just copy-and-paste useful code from other developers, rather than subclassing them, to preserve the ability to modify their components in the future.
  6. Class names could help identify properties, but will probably just complicate everything.

    One way to skirt the problems above is to use HTML element classes to identify properties by class name, and reference these classes in the CSS selectors. If you gave up on specific HTML tags, and just used a <div> and a named element class for all properties, the second code fragment above could look like this:
    <x-choice value=”semantics”>
      <div class=”summary”>Semantics</div>
      <div class=”description”>Giving meaning to structure…</div>
    <x-choice value=”offline-storage”>
        <div class=”summary”>Offline & Storage</div>
        <div class=”description”>Web apps can start faster…</div>
    This could potentially work if everyone agreed to always using an element class name to identify a property, and consistently applied those classes to a single element type (likely <div>) which everyone agreed upon would stand for “parameter”. Unfortunately, the more likely result is that throwing element class names into the mix will just complicate everything further. Some devs will write their components that way, but others will insist the use of HTML elements as shown above. Some will require the use of both specific HTML elements and specific class names. E.g., the choice component’s summary property will be forced to be identified with <h3.summary> to avoid possible conflicts with other <h3> elements in the content. This would be verbose and, worse, as a component user you’d have to remember and specify two things, when one should be sufficient.
  7. Invisible component APIs foreclose the possibility of inspection and reflection.

    The choice component in this example effectively presents its hosts with an external API that allows the host to fill in two text properties. Unfortunately, that API is implicit in the design of the <content> elements and their selectors. That makes it hard to programmatically understand what a component is doing. At design time, there’s no easy way to statically analyze the code to inspect what those <content> elements are actually being used for. You could potentially parse the HTML to find the <content> elements, then parse their CSS selectors, but that still wouldn’t give you any hints as to what those <content> elements were being used for. At least a formal property name gives you a real idea as to its purpose. And at runtime, there would be no easy way to ask a choice component instance questions about which properties it supports: “How many properties do you have?”, or “Do you have a ‘description’ property?” Such run-time inspection of a component’s API (also known as reflection) can be a powerful tool. In this very presentation, Google’s developers point toward the benefits of programmatic inspection when they observe that giving web developers the ability to create new custom elements (via the <element> tag) will open new possibilities in researching possible improvements to HTML itself. For example, researchers could statically inspect Web Components actually used by production web sites to determine, for example, the names of the most common custom elements. That in turn could help guide the formal adoption of new HTML elements in future versions of the language itself. That’s just one example of what’s possible when APIs are explicit. Such explicitness should be extended beyond component names to cover component property names as well.

A proposal to fix this: Support multiple, named, DOM-valued component properties

All the issues above could be eliminated or dramatically improved if the Web Components spec were amended to let developers create components that accept multiple, named, DOM-valued properties. (Presumably, this support would actually be added to HTML Templates, used by both <element> and <decorator> elements.)

Here are some possible syntax suggestions:

There’s still time to fix this

In their presentation, Alex and Dimitri indicated that their goal is not to spec out a complete replacement for web UI frameworks. Rather, the goal of their work is to lay a solid foundation on top of which great web UI frameworks can be built by others. In this light, it is hoped that the Web Components spec can be amended to support multiple, named, DOM-valued properties — because that’s exactly the foundation a great web UI framework is going to need.

The QuickUI framework, at least, is more expressive with regard to component content than is possible within the current Web Components spec. That is to say, the existing Catalog of QuickUI controls (and the many others controls written in the service of specific QuickUI-based applications) could not be ported to the current Web Components spec. Or, perhaps, those controls could be ported — but then, for the reasons given above, the collection would then become so brittle that its evolution would come to a halt. That would be a shame.

To be sure, the Google team, and the others working on Web Components, are smart folks, and it’s likely they’ve already given at least some thought to the problems raised in this post. But more input, particularly when informed by real application experience by potential users of a standard, is always valuable in weighing decisions about what should go into the standard. And it’s in that spirit that this post is written.

If you yourself have worked with component frameworks, and have experiences that bear on this issue, please share them with the folks at Google. A good forum for feedback might be the Web Components page on Google+. (Be sure to thank everyone for their work!)

Evidence suggesting more than half of web app UI code is reinventing results already achieved many times before

Web app designers and developers spend a staggering amount of time recreating common effects and behavior that have already been done many times before on other sites, or within their own organization, or in their own code on previous projects, or — worse yet — in their own code on the same project. You may spend days and days carefully reproducing common UI behavior that can readily be found in other apps: menus, dialogs, in-place editing, progress feedback, and on and on. The web wasn’t built to solve those problems, so you have to solve them — over and over again.

This situation is already at least partially avoidable with current web frameworks that permit the creation of reusable UI components. As a case in point, I recently created a sample Contacts application in the QuickUI framework. The app sports a reasonably interesting user interface, but the bulk of its behavior is driven by shared components from the QuickUI Catalog that provide layout, visual effects, editing behavior, list management, and keyboard navigation.

Having built a handful of web apps in QuickUI now, there’s a pretty clear pattern to the balance of UI components used in these apps: about half of the UI code is comprised of components directly from the Catalog or from previous projects. And, in every case, the project itself has generated new, sharable UI components.

Look at your app’s UI elements — at every scale, from page, to region, to widget, to tiny little visual element — and ask yourself: has anyone done this before? Will someone do it again? If this were a component, could I be sharing it with someone down the hall, or at another company? In asking these questions, you’ll generally need to scrape away purely stylistic attributes such as color and typography, and focus more closely on behavior.

As you consider these question of UI reusability, it becomes apparent that the audience for a reusable UI element varies in size, depending on the degree to which the UI is solving a problem that comes up in other contexts. Some UI is completely specific to the context of a single feature, while some UI patterns are extremely general and come up everywhere.

It’s possible to categorize your UI elements according to this aspect of context-specificity. Having created a half dozen or so web apps of reasonable complexity in the component-orient QuickUI framework, the proportional breakdown across these categories has been very consistent. This leads me to hypothesize that the general proportions of these categories are roughly consistent across most web apps.


Categories of reusable user interface components across apps

Such a breakdown might look like this, ordered from most context-specific to most general:

UI Component Layers (Reduced)


The percentages I’ve given above are rough, but drawn from examining the UI code in apps I’ve written over the last few years. Those apps were already carefully componentized, and focused on code reuse, so I expect a more thorough analysis of more web apps would confirm that the numbers above are conservative. That is, the actual degree of unnecessary reimplementation in a typical web application is probably far higher. Without a component foundation, the most expedient way to replicate a given behavior is often to cut-and-paste it from somewhere else in the app’s source, then hack on the result to fit the new context. The app may not only be reinventing the UI wheel, but doing so multiple times in the same codebase.

If the above breakdown is even roughly correct, then consider a new web company entering an existing market who writes their app UI entirely from scratch. Even if it were extremely well-factored, 50% of all the UI code they write would be reinventing the wheel, solving domain-specific or general purpose UI problems which have already been solved before. While that sounds extreme, it’s probably not that far off the mark for most companies. While most apps consume at least some third-party UI elements (to implement a Facebook “Like” button, say), in many cases the typical company is just nibbling at the edges of the problem. And, if we assume that office politics and other factors prevent them from sharing code internally, the percentage of unnecessary re-invention may be much higher.

No matter how you slice it, chances are that most app teams are writing way too much UI code. Because the web lacks a real component model, most companies write reams and reams of non-modular, non-reusable UI code. If they were to build their apps on a UI framework that let them use and extend components, they could probably avoid writing much of the UI code they write today. To put this in business terms: if they were to componentize their UI effectively, they could get the same amount done in half the time or with half the resources. Obviously adopting a component strategy and reusing components have costs of their own, but I expect those are dwarfed by the mind-numbing scale of solving the same problems again and again.

There already are component frameworks for developing web app user interfaces. I’m obviously heavily invested in QuickUI, but you can find others out there as well. Given the huge savings they can make possible, they’re worth a look.

Sample Contacts applicatiousing Backbone and QuickUI

Back in April, someone evaluating QuickUI made the completely reasonable request to see a complete sample application created in QuickUI. More specifically, they were interested in seeing a demonstration of how to use QuickUI as the View in an MVC (Model-View-Controller) application, ideally using the popular Backbone.js library. QuickUI is well suited to fill that role, and a sample application has now been created to show off how to do exactly that.

The result is a sample Contacts application built in QuickUI. The sample takes advantage of QuickUI’s support for CoffeeScript, which turns out to be an elegant language to express both Backbone and QuickUI classes. Read the sample’s documentation for more details of its construction.

QuickkUI 0.9.1 released

QuickUI 0.9.1 contains two changes:

First, it’s now even easier to create web user interface components in CoffeeScript. When CoffeeScript support in QuickUI was first announced a month ago, you had to include a boilerplate constructor. This was required to work around a limitation in CoffeeScript, in which CoffeeScript’s default constructor for a class didn’t return a value. (See a good summary of the issue here.) That issue has now been fixed in CoffeeScript 1.3.3. With a considerable degree of rework in the base Control class, you can now create a new user interface control in a single line of CoffeeScript:

control window.MyButton extends BasicButton

The QuickUI documentation for creating controls in CoffeeScript has been updated to reflect this.

Second, QuickUI 0.9.1 has a simplified model for generic styling. The QuickUI Catalog controls define generic styles that allow them to function without you needing to provide styling for them. You can easily turn off a base class’ generic style by setting the subclass’ generic() property to false.

How jQuery instantiates objects as jQuery.fn.init, and what that means if you want to subclass jQuery

In order for the recent release of QuickUI 0.9.1 to support concise creation of control classes in CoffeeScript, it was necessary to go deep into the bowels of jQuery’s class constructor to determine how it worked. Those findings are documented here in case others have a similar need to subclass jQuery, or would like to address the same need that drove jQuery to its current implementation.

The jQuery class constructor can be found in core.js:

jQuery = function( selector, context ) {
    // The jQuery object is actually just the init constructor 'enhanced'
    return new jQuery.fn.init( selector, context, rootjQuery );

But the comment doesn’t do much to explain why init exists, or how it works.

All jQuery developers are familiar with the form $(“div”), which is a shorthand for the longer jQuery(“div”). This, we are told, returns a new jQuery object. Actually, from the above constructor, we can see that what it really returns is an instance of the jQuery.fn.init class. (From here on out, we’ll just refer to that class as “init”.) The init constructor is defined like so:

jQuery.fn = jQuery.prototype = {
    init: function( selector, context, rootjQuery ) {

Here, first note that jQuery.fn is just a synonym for jQuery.prototype. Given that, we see that the init class constructor hangs off the jQuery prototype. Stashing the init class on the jQuery class’ prototype allows the jQuery library to avoid polluting the JavaScript global namespace with an extra class. (Of course, init could easily have been defined inside the outer jquery.js function closure, which would avoid namespace pollution and prevent access to it from outside. The init class isn’t really referred to elsewhere in the jQuery source, so it’s not immediately clear why that wasn’t done. Perhaps the above approach makes for easier debugging.)

Further on, we see this init class defined as a subclass of the jQuery class:

// Give the init function the jQuery prototype for later instantiation
jQuery.fn.init.prototype = jQuery.fn;

Since jQuery.fn is just an abbreviation for jQuery.prototype, the above line is really:

jQuery.prototype.init.prototype = jQuery.prototype;

This ensures that any instance of init will also be a functional instance of jQuery. This can be confirmed in the debugger:

> $e = $("div")
> $e instanceof jQuery
> $e instanceof jQuery.fn.init

So all those times when you create an instance of jQuery you are actually working with an instance of a jQuery subclass.

Okay, but why bother? One reason is that jQuery wants to support a static constructor form: one you can invoke with needing to specify “new”. Regardless of whether you invoke the jQuery() constructor with “new” or not, it’s always going to return an instance of the init class. And, because init is a subclass of jQuery, you’ll end up with an instance of jQuery, which is what you wanted.

// The following lines are all equal.
var $e = new jQuery("div");
var $e = jQuery("div");
var $e = new $("div");
var $e = $("div");

So at least one reason init exists is that it serves as a helper class to let you write shorter jQuery code. The thing is, supporting instantiation without “new” doesn’t require defining a separate helper class.

The jQuery constructor above is relying upon an oddity in the JavaScript language: a constructor can return an object that’s an instance of a class other than the class defined by the constructor. The jQuery class could more easily use the simpler factory constructor pattern to check to see whether it’s been invoked without “new” (in which case “this” will be the window) and, if so, just return a new instance of itself. That is, in fact, how jQuery worked back in jQuery 1.1:

var jQuery = function(a,c) {
    // If the context is global, return a new object
    if ( window == this )
        return new jQuery(a,c);

By jQuery 1.2, however, the jQuery constructor was using the technique shown above. It’s hard to tell from the code exactly why the init helper class was introduced. One possibility is that init has that extra rootjQuery parameter which is for internal use only. Burying that parameter in a helper class avoids having to expose the parameter in the jQuery API, where it might confuse jQuery developers or, worse, encourage them to create code that depends upon that parameter.

Subclassing jQuery

One cost of jQuery’s class scheme is that it makes it much harder for you to subclass jQuery. One reason you might want to do this is to provide scoping for your own jQuery plugins. If you want to add a lot of plugins to jQuery’s prototype (which, as indicated above, is what you’re doing when you add something to jQuery.fn), you could potentially pollute the jQuery namespace and run into conflicts with other plugins. By subclassing jQuery, and working strictly with instances of your subclass, you hide all your plugins from anyone who’s directly instantiating the plain jQuery class.

Unfortunately, because of this init helper class, the normal JavaScript prototype-based subclassing scheme won’t work with jQuery. To make your subclass jQuery-like, you end up needing to replicate jQuery’s complex helper class arrangement: create a subclass of jQuery and a companion init helper class, derive your helper class from your actual jQuery subclass, and ensure your subclass’s constructor actually returns an instance of your init class.

The mind-breaking pain of all that is presumably what led to the creation of a jQuery function called $.sub(). That function does exactly what’s described above: it defines a new subclass of jQuery and a companion init helper class.

The $.sub() plugin doesn’t seem to be used much, perhaps because its benefits and reason for existence aren’t well-documented. The announced plan is that $.sub() will be removed from the core jQuery library in version 1.8, and transition to become an official plugin. As a result, $.sub() is deprecated as a native jQuery feature, but $.sub() and its technique will continue to be useful, so it’s still worth understanding and considering it.

QuickUI relies upon the $.sub() technique to make its base Control a subclass of jQuery. This is what lets you use any jQuery feature with QuickUI controls directly: you can bind events to them with $.on(), you can style them with $.css(), and so on. That’s because your control class derives from Control, and so ultimately derives from jQuery.

You can create a new QuickUI control class in JavaScript by invoking Control.sub(). And, with QuickUI 0.9.1, you can now create subclasses of Control (and, therefore, jQuery ) using CoffeeScript’s built-in class syntax, which is concise and highly legible. In either language, you can easily create your own reusable web user interface components that have direct access to all the power of jQuery.


For the past two months or so, I’ve left off from my weekly blogging habit here to focus on some behind-the-scenes aspect of QuickUI. I post about those updates on the separate QuickUI blog. That blog is more technically-oriented, but I though it was worth sharing a roundup of those posts here:

Thanks to those who have shared suggestions with me — they’re very helpful. If you take a look at any of the above and have feedback, please let me know.

Some observations on porting the QuickUI runtime from plain JavaScript to CoffeeScript

This post shares some highlights of the experience porting a non-trivial library from plain JavaScript to CoffeeScript in case other parties are considering a similar transition.

Yesterday’s announcement of QuickUI 0.9 mentioned that the framework source code has now been ported to CoffeeScript. The QuickUI framework is intended for plain JavaScript development as well; nothing in the change of source language changes that. But experimentation with the CoffeeScript language suggested there were enough advantages to the language that, going forward, it would be worth porting the runtime from plain JavaScript to CoffeeScript.

Overall, the port from plain to JavaScript to CoffeeScript went rather smoothly, and the bulk of it took about two days. The QuickUI runtime, quickui.js, is a reasonably complex JavaScript library, which is to say that it’s not a toy or trivial sample application. The last plain JavaScript version of the QuickUI runtime, quickui-0.8.9.js, was about 7700 lines of plain JavaScript (including comments), or about 60K, developed over the course of four and a half years.

Automatic translation with js2Coffee

The handy js2coffee conversion tool was used to kickstart the port. Kudos to Rico Sta. Cruz for this great tool.

After about a morning of work, a CoffeeScript-based quickui.js was functional. It passed all unit tests, and could actually be used to drive a non-trivial QuickUI-based body of code like the QuickUI Catalog.

Towards idiomatic CoffeeScript

After the mechanical port with js2coffee, various CoffeeScript idioms were applied incrementally to replace the standard JavaScript idioms with their more concise CoffeeScript versions. This took another day and half or so.

Idiomatic CoffeeScript iteration over jQuery objects

Speaking of “for” loops, it turns out that a good deal of the QuickUI runtime deals with looping over jQuery objects. QuickUI controls are a subclass of jQuery object, and when looping over them in plain JavaScript, it’s often convenient to use jQuery’s $.each() function. For example, this function invokes foo(), a jQuery method or plugin, on each element in a jQuery object:

var $elements = $(".someClass");
$elements.each( function( index, element ) {
    $( element ).foo();

Note that $.each() gives the callback the plain DOM element, so you have to wrap that element with $(element) to get a jQuery object you can then manipulate. To simplify that, QuickUI’s runtime has long had a helper function called eachControl() that gives the callback the element as a wrapped jQuery object. (In QuickUI’s case, it also ensures the control’s particular subclass of jQuery is used, so that you can directly manipulate the control with that control’s own specific API.) E.g.:

var $buttons = $(".BasicButton");
$buttons.eachControl( function( index, $button ) {

To take best advantage of CoffeeScript’s supports for looping constructs, a simple jQuery plugin was created to create an array that can directly be used by CoffeeScript’s “for” loop and list comprehensions. This plugin, called Control.segments(), converts a jQuery object that holds a number of elements into an array of jQuery objects that each hold a single (wrapped) element. The definition of segments() in CoffeeScript is trivial:

Control::segments = ->
  ( @constructor element for element in @ )

QuickUI defines segments() on the Control class so as not to pollute the general jQuery plugin namespace, but the above definition could just as easily be done as jQuery::segments to create a plugin that worked with any jQuery object. In any event, the result of applying segments() to a jQuery object is an array that can be directly iterated over, while at the same time preserving type information.

$button.foo() for $button in Control(".BasicButton").segments()

Here, the looping variable $button ends up holding an instanceof BasicButton (which is also an instanceof jQuery), so $button.foo() invokes BasicButton.prototype.foo().

This “for” loop feels more direct and idiomatic in CoffeeScript than the standard $.each() approach. (In fact, it’d be nice if $.each() were extended so that, if invoked without arguments, it returned an array just like segments() does here.) This segments() call can also be used in CoffeeScript list comprehensions, thereby replacing many situations in which $.map() is currently used. A jsperf experiment suggests the segments() approach performs roughly as well as the standard $.each(). The generated JavaScript for segments() does build a temporary array of results, but it avoids the need for the callback function and the accompanying closure.


The new, CoffeeScript-based QuickUI source code gets compiled to a plain JavaScript file that’s essentially the same size as the handwritten JavaScript (61K vs 60K). The new runtime appears to perform and function just as well as the earlier plain JavaScript one, so QuickUI developers shouldn’t notice any difference. At the same time, the new CoffeeScript source code feels a lot tighter and easier to read and maintain.

This ability to write tighter code has already invited the successful implementation of a number of long-planned improvements to the runtime. It’s hard to say how many of those improvements were easier to tackle because of advantages in the CoffeeScript language itself, and how many were tackled just because CoffeeScript is a shiny, new tool. But as a general rule, it seems that CoffeeScript permits a programmer to more directly express their intention than one can do in JavaScript — and any language that can do that is a step forward.

Best of all, using any language like CoffeeScript that compiles to plain JavaScript enables a developer to finally break a hard dependence between language choice and the user’s browser. Now that QuickUI itself is written in CoffeeScript, it can take immediate advantage of improvements in CoffeeScript the day they appear, instead of waiting years for incremental JavaScript improvements to make their way through committee, into browsers, and into users’ hands.

QuickUI now lets you create user interface controls in CoffeeScript

QuickUI now supports the use and creation of web user interface controls in CoffeeScript, a language that adds many useful features to the JavaScript language. Through its compiler, CoffeeScript can be easily used as a replacement for JavaScript in many web projects.

QuickUI turns out to be a natural fit for CoffeeScript. One of the nice features in CoffeeScript is that you can create classes with the language’s built-in “class” syntax. You can take advantage of that syntax to create new QuickUI control classes, simply by extending the base Control class or any other control class:

# A simple button class in CoffeeScript
class window.HelloButton extends BasicButton
  constructor: -> return Control.coffee()
    content: "Hello, world!"
  genericSupport: true

QuickUI control classes are subclasses of jQuery, so one of the key features in QuickUI’s new support for CoffeeScript is actually being able to create jQuery subclasses in CoffeeScript. CoffeeScript generates a prototype-based class that is similar to the classes produced by jQuery’s $.sub() feature (a core part of jQuery that will be moved to a plugin in jQuery 1.8), but jQuery’s classes require a rather Byzantine construction sequence. This is handled through the boilerplate constructor shown above. When Control.coffee() is called, it fixes up the CoffeeScript class so that it conforms to jQuery’s notion of how its class constructors should work.

With this in place, it’s now possible to create QuickUI controls in CoffeeScript with significantly less source code than the equivalent plain JavaScript. This is an overall win for web UI developers. If your team hasn’t already taken a look at CoffeeScript, now might be a good time.

Creating QuickUI controls in CoffeeScript currently requires a plugin, but the plan is to fold CoffeeScript support directly into the quickui.js runtime. Read the documentation for QuickUI support of CoffeeScript for more details.

How QuickUI controls use code to specialize the handling of their content (in ways that might not be supported by Web Components

As indicated in the earlier overview comparing QuickUI and Web Components, one significant difference between the two frameworks is that QuickUI allows code to run when a control’s content() property is set, while the Web Components spec does not currently allow for this. This post will attempt to begin making the case for the need for this feature, starting with an analysis of how that feature is used in QuickUI controls today.

The largest public body of QuickUI controls is QuickUI Catalog, which as of this writing includes 76 open source controls that handle a variety of common user interface tasks or serve as demonstrations of how to achieve common behaviors in controls. Of the 76 published controls:

Control When content() property is set, the control…
AutoSizeTextBox Recalculates its own height to match that of the content.
ColorSwatchButton Transforms a string color name/value into a color.
ColorSwatchTextBox Transforms a string color name/value into a color.
HighlightEffects Recalculates its height/width.
HintTextBox Shows hint text if the content is empty.
Menu Recalculates the width of a subelement (a “shield” element that must be exactly as wide as the content to achieve a particular visual effect).
PackedColumns Recalculates its layout.
PanelWithOverflow Recalculates its layout.
PersistentPanel Checks to see whether the panel should be docked or not.
PopupButton Adjusts its layout if the content is not empty.
Repeater Copies the content into the array of repeated sub-controls.
SearchBox Enables its search icon if the content is not empty.
SlidingPages Recalculates its height/width.
SlidingPagesWithDots Updates the number of page buttons to match the number of pages (i.e., child nodes) in the content.
Switch Determines which child should be visible.
Tab Lets the parent tab set know the tab’s size may have changed.
TabSet Creates a tab button for each tab page.
TextBox Generates a programmatic “change” event.
TextCondenser Determines whether the text should appear condensed to help it fit.
ValidatingTextBox Validates the contents.

To summarize, these controls are doing the following types of work when their content changes:

Such controls represent a significant percentage of the QuickUI Catalog — approximately 25% — and it’s very likely that similar results would be found in other QuickUI-based projects. And in addition to the scenarios listed above, other scenarios likely exist in which a control wants to perform work when its content changes.

Overall, this pass through the QuickUI Catalog suggests that many interesting user interface components have a need to perform work when their content is set — to do something more than passively hold the content they’re passed. At this point, it’s not exactly whether the aforementioned QuickUI controls could be successfully ported to Web Components as the spec currently stands, which would be unfortunate. (As stated in the previous post, a long-term vision for the QuickUI framework is that controls created in QuickUI can be transitioned to a Web Components foundation in the future.)

It’s possible that a component could use forthcoming support for DOM mutation observers could be used to track changes to its own content, but whether this would work, or work well, is not yet known. A control could also force its host to invoke some method on the control whenever the host changes the control’s content, but that would be unfortunate; it would place extra work on the developer, and a host’s failure to properly notify the control that its contents have changed could lead to subtle bugs.

vision for coevolving QuickUI and the emerging Web Components standard

This post is the first in a series looking at the relationship between QuickUI and Web Components. This post will kick things off by laying out some basic points of a vision for how these two technologies might co-evolve.

The Web Components effort spearheaded by Google is a vital effort towards promoting component-based user interface design for web-based apps. Componentized user interfaces may radically transform the web industry. It will take some time for the spec to be finished and agreed upon, and then still more time for the technology to make its way into users’ hands. It is hoped that QuickUI can serve as a bridge to the world of Web Components, act as a reference point for work on the emerging spec, and provide services and component libraries that speed the creation of Web Component-based apps.

QuickUI and Web Components have the same goal

Both frameworks address the same fundamental objective: let web designers and developers create better applications faster through the creation and use of modular, reusable, and extensible user interface elements. QuickUI calls such elements “controls” and the Web Components spec calls them “components”, but in this context the terms are essentially interchangeable.

There are obviously differences in approach. QuickUI is built on JavaScript and jQuery, while Web Components is native code and browser- and library-agnostic. The Web Components framework, by virtue of being part of the browser, can do many things which a JavaScript library like QuickUI cannot. There are some obvious performance benefits to doing things in native code. It’s also possible for the browser to enforce a high degree of component isolation by preventing a Web Component’s host from knowing what’s going on inside the component. Such isolation is crucial for a component platform, because it leads to a proper separation of concerns. A component author can make many modifications to the inner workings of a component without fear that hosts of that component are inappropriately depending on a particular implementation. QuickUI can only maintain such separation of concerns by convention and by proffering services that make it easier for developers to use controls in a modular way than not.

Despite their differences, fundamentally these two web user interface frameworks are more compatible than not. This opens up the possibilities which follow.

QuickUI and Web Components should be interoperable

Based on the current Web Components spec, in theory it should be straightforward for a QuickUI control to host a Web Component, and vice versa. That can provide a degree of future-proof resiliency to a team that wants to build with QuickUI today. But it should be possible to do better than that…

QuickUI itself will someday be built on top of the Web Components foundation

Given the performance and modularity benefits of Web Components, and the reasonably close alignment of goals, it appears that it should be possible to eventually have QuickUI controls be Web Components.

Currently, the lowest levels of the quickui.js runtime provides services such as creating control subclasses and instantiating controls. These low-level services would be provided by a Web Components-enabled browser instead. The QuickUI runtime could potentially detect whether the user’s browser supports Web Components and, if so, create controls as Web Components wrapped by jQuery. On legacy browsers (all today’s released browser versions, going back to IE 8), the QuickUI runtime would continue to create controls as regular DOM elements wrapped by jQuery.

QuickUI can provide useful features beyond those which have been standardized

Standards, by their nature, advance slowly. Even once QuickUI is built on top of Web Components, QuickUI can continue to evolve at a faster pace to meet the needs of web designers and developers. QuickUI can be the “running code” in the maxim that Internet standards evolve from Rough consensus, running code.

QuickUI is also designed explicitly for jQuery developers, whereas the Web Components spec must be library-agnostic. In the same way that jQuery developers currently find it much easier to write an interactive UI in jQuery than by doing direct DOM manipulation, they will also find creating controls (components) easier in QuickUI than using only the low-level services offered by the browser. For example, a QuickUI control is already a jQuery instance, so a developer can immediately and directly manipulate a control using all the facilities in jQuery. As another example, QuickUI’s services for creating properties generate jQuery-style getter/setter functions which are automatically chainable, and can be applied to a collection of elements in a single call.

QuickUI may serve as a reference for work on Web Components

As a 4+ year-old web user interface framework, there’s already a considerable degree of hard-earned knowledge baked into the QuickUI framework. These lessons can be considered as the various parties working on Web Components flesh out the details of that spec. It’s in this role of QuickUI as a reference point that some of the important lessons from QuickUI will be covered in future posts on this blog.

QuickUI lets teams create componentized web user interfaces today

Many of the benefits of building a user interface with components can be achieved by a team using QuickUI today. As summarized on the QuickUI home page, those benefits include the abilities to:

Investment in QuickUI apps today can be preserved when Web Components arrive

This is a vision, not a legal commitment. The Web Components spec is still in flux and evolving entirely outside the control of anyone working on QuickUI, so it’s impossible to promise how things will work in the future. Still, it’s plausible that a team could begin creating a web user interface in QuickUI today, and as Web Component-enabled browsers arrive and gain use, the team could automatically (or, at least, easily) transition to that better foundation to improve the performance and reliability of their apps.

The QuickUI Catalog will evolve into the web’s best open library of reusable user interface components

To an extent, the QuickUI Catalog of common, ready-to-use controls is somewhat independent of the underlying QuickUI foundation. At the most abstract level, these are user interface patterns that can be found in many applications on many platforms. Even if obstacles prevent QuickUI controls from being built as Web Components, the existing JavaScript code base for the Catalog would give one a huge headstart in creating an equivalent library of Web Components. And if the vision outlined here comes to pass, the Catalog’s collection of components — and user interfaces built with them — should be able to transition smoothly to a Web Components foundation.

Next steps: investigation of framework differences

While the above points lay out a vision for the coevolution of QuickUI and Web Components, many details remain which must be investigated before such a vision can come to pass. While the goals of the two frameworks are generally aligned, the design principles underlying the two have significant differences. For example, QuickUI’s core design principles seem to place greater emphasis on extensibility — creating a new control class by extending an existing class — than does the current Web Components spec. Such differences could lead to irreconcilable incompatibilities, which would represent lost opportunity.

The hope is that any issues can be teased out of the Web Components spec early enough and either worked around or submitted for consideration so that they may hopefully be addressed. Some key issues warranting further investigation are:

  1. A significant fraction of QuickUI controls override their base class’ content() property setter function in order to perform work when a host sets a control’s content. This is done for a variety of reasons: to partially fill in a component’s DOM tree (a sort of user interface currying); to transform content before displaying it; to recalculate layout; or to perform other operations dependent upon the content. This is not currently supported in the Web Components spec. An analysis of the QuickUI Catalog controls on this topic is underway to produce a set of common use cases.
  2. A QuickUI subclass maintains an is-a relationship with its base class. The <shadow> element in the Web Components spec may lead to subclasses that effectively maintain more of a has-a relationship with their parent class. It’s not immediately clear, for example, how one could define a base class and a subclass that meet all these conditions: a) both use the same root element (e.g., <button>), b) both are independently instantiable, c) the subclass can host base class elements (e.g., via <shadow>), and d) the subclass is a JavaScript instanceof (is-a) of the base class. These conditions often arise when extending an existing control class, and QuickUI control classes can meet all of them.
  3. The Web Components proposal minimizes the impact on the HTML language itself, but one repercussion of this appears to be that component classes can’t define custom properties that can be set through markup. As currently understood, the spec calls for hosts to pass values to components exclusively through a single content tree. The component class must then prise apart this content through a “select=” attribute so that it can incorporate content subelements into different parts of the component.This is roughly analogous to the way command-line apps must parse their text arguments, with both the flexibility and the potential for great inconsistency that go with that. In this context, such flexibility may create significant complications for the creation and maintenance of subclasses, as varying levels of the class hierarchy impose different demands on the content. Overall, this doesn’t feel as specific or clean as the compound property syntax in a language like XAML (or QuickUI Markup), in which a control class can define custom properties that may be set as string attributes, through nested subelements, or through property setter functions.

As these issues are investigated more deeply, the results of those investigations will be posted here.

QuickUI 0.9: a significant update

QuickUI 0.9 has been released. This is a major update which includes a number of changes that make it easier than ever to create reusable, extensible web user interface components.

While the above work was underway, the QuickUI source code was substantially overhauled:

Please take a look!

From MacPaint to FiftyThree's Paper: Someday all our apps will be this great

Imagine, for a moment, that you’re living way back in the early 1980s, maybe 1984. You have access to a computer, and on that computer, you use a top-end DOS app like Lotus 1-2-3:


Lotus 1-2-3


Then, one day, you see a marketing campaign for a new computer. Your eye catches on this image:




Your mind is completely blown. The user interface for this application, which you learn is called MacPaint, seems utterly unlike any application you’ve ever seen. In fact, the entire premise of this image speaks to a proposition that’s never before even occurred to you: a computer can be used to create art.

• • •

Looking back, it’s hard to convey now how stunning both this image and that proposition were at the time. When the original Macintosh was released, this was probably the first vaguely art-like computer-rendered illustration most people had ever seen. Before that moment, when (or if) the average person thought about a computer, they considered it a tool for crunching numbers or typing documents.

In retrospect, this Japanese woodcut was probably the most sophisticated illustration most people ever saw on an original Macintosh. As groundbreaking as the application was, it was simply impossible for the average user, even a fairly artistic person, to create something of this quality with a mouse. Drawing with a mouse in MacPaint was said to be, “like drawing with a bar of soap”. If you tried to create something like the above yourself, the results were laughable. You could indeed create interesting works in MacPaint, but only by relying on text, lines, polygons, and those paint bucket textures along the bottom. That is, you got the most interesting results with tools that were well-suited to software implementation and which produced effects you couldn’t easily achieve on paper.

The designer behind this image, Susan Kare, discussed it in an interview:

With the Japanese lady, [Apple developer] Bill Atkinson was experimenting with scanning, and Steve [Jobs] brought in an actual woodcut that he had bought: it was big and colorful, and that was one of the first things that we scanned. And I took the scan, which was kind of rough, and refined it to make the final illustration. It looks so crude now — in terms of scanning technology — but it seemed amazing at the time that you could get a “real” image into your computer.

The fact that this image started from a scan was both a surprise and something of a disappointment. Ah, no wonder we never saw illustrations like this — fundamentally, this was marketing! Not to detract from the groundbreaking impact of this work, but this image was clearly meant to suggest to users that they could create art freehand, using only the tools in MacPaint.

Nevertheless, MacPaint represented a watershed in application user interfaces that had broad impact far beyond its users or market. When such an event occurs, it’s possible to look at the app and say something remarkable: Someday all our apps will be this great.

The only reason the MacPaint woodblock image is no longer jaw-dropping to us today is because, within a relatively short time, nearly every application acquired a user interface that in many ways looked and worked as as well as (or, eventually, better than) the interface in MacPaint. Apps simply had to improve to stay competitive, and users everywhere reaped the benefits.

• • •

Such a moment has now happened again — or at any rate, it has now happened again to me. The moment came when I saw a post on Beautiful Pixels about Paper, an app by a company called FiftyThree:




Paper is beautiful, and I find it a joy to use. Like MacPaint before it, I think Paper represents a new watershed in user interfaces.

Earlier I’d tried Adobe Ideas, a vaguely similar sketch pad app. It’s a fairly typical touch-enabled iPad application, and follows many (but not all) iPad conventions. Judging by app store reviews of Adobe Ideas, some of its users love it, and find it very useful. I myself was underwhelmed. Adobe Ideas feels utilitarian, like a dead thing. Using it to create a sketch feels like work. After a few attempts, I stopped using Adobe Ideas.

Paper, in contrast, feels like something tangible and alive. It’s delightfully fun. Since I installed Paper, I look forward to using it every day. Paper’s interface is beautiful at every level. Zooming out from a drawing (above) shows a sketchbook (below left) containing multiple drawings, and zooming out further shows your collection of sketchbooks (below right):


Paper Sketchbook   Paper Sketchbooks


A stunning amount of detail has gone into every aspect of Paper’s design. Just a sampling of the tiny details I’ve noticed:

Surprisingly, Paper actually delivers on the original MacPaint premise: you can create beautiful art. I’m no artist, but I was able to quickly sketch the still life with fruit shown above, and the cat in the smaller image. It turns out you can add watercolors to pretty much any pen or pencil drawing in Paper and get something that looks pretty good. My children think so too — yesterday evening I had to read the Kindle edition of Angelmaker on my phone because I couldn’t pry the iPad away from my four year-old.

(Aside: Paper is free, but you’ll have to pay to get the watercolors. You should just bite the bullet and buy all the tools — you will in the end, anyway. I think Paper’s pricing model is as clever as their interface design.)

As amazing as the artistic results are, I don’t think they represent Paper’s greatest accomplishment. At the highest level, I think the best thing Paper has really done is let you feel like an artist. I haven’t regularly sketched anything since Drawing 101 in college, and now I find I’ve bought an iPad stylus so I can do more with Paper.

FiftyThree carries this message throughout out the Paper app, as well as through their site and brand. Everything about this product is designed to lead you to believe, “I am the kind of cool latter-day renaissance person who carries around a Moleskine notebook because my free aesthetic soul may encounter a beautiful scene I want to render as art. I am that awesome.” This is, in fact, the very image in the Paper promotional video: a guy wandering around New York City sketching stuff. The video is shot from first-person perspective. That guy is you.

I think the term “user experience design” is often overblown puffery — when I get to observe someone working through an app design problem, they’re usually focused on the feature set and interface. I rarely witness someone actually thinking directly about the experience their user will have. But with Paper, I think “experience design” is an apt term for what they’ve done. Maybe even that term sells it short. It could be called something like “self-conception design”.

But, wait! Here’s the best part. Someday all our apps will be this great.

Think about that. In the not-too-distant future, every bit of software you currently use (and maybe swear at) — an online store, the Settings area for your latest device, a random tool from an IT department, the production app you spend your workday in — all those things will someday be as beautiful to look at and joyful to use as this Paper app.

And those apps will make you feel great. When send a message, you will feel like a great communicator (or socialite). When you follow a treasure map to an out-of-the-way restaurant in a new town, you will feel like a great explorer. When you follow a recipe, you will feel like a great chef. And when you create a bit of software, you will feel like a great designer.

Make web menu bars more usable: open a menu on hover only if another menu is already open

The history of user interface design isn’t terribly long, but it’s long enough that designers who ignore it do so at their users’ peril. In the transition from clients apps to the web, a lot of UI history has been forgotten, ignored, or reluctantly set aside because its lessons were too expensive (if not impossible) to preserve in early browsers.

For example, it’s hard to find a web application with a menu bar as usable as the standard system menu bars in OS/X and Windows. Consider the basic tasks of opening and closing a menu in a menu bar. Last week’s post on popups listed a number of ways in which a user can cancel a menu: clicking outside of it (while not accidentally triggering whatever one clicks on), pressing Escape, resizing the window, scrolling, or moving the focus to a different window. Web implementations often overlook these aspects of closing a menu.

If we now turn our attention to the task of opening a menu, we find most web apps give this basic act similarly blunt treatment. The choices you’ll typically see in web menus are one of these:

The odd thing is that a completely smooth way to finesse the problems of both these methods is right in front of the designer and developer, in the very same OS/X and Windows client applications they are likely using to design or code one of these problematic approaches.

Key attributes of menu riffing behavior

For ages both OS/X and Windows have used the following menu behavior:

  1. When no menu is open, hovering over a menu title can provide hover feedback on the title (Windows does this), but does not pop up the menu.
  2. Clicking a menu opens it. This required click prevents accidental menu invocation.
  3. Once a menu is open, hovering into the title of another menu closes the previous menu and implicitly opens the new one. This lets the user quickly riff through a menu bar’s menus to familiarize themselves with their contents or to find a specific command.

    [Update: A commenter correctly points out that client OSes actually open menus immediately on mouse down, instead of waiting for mouse up. This makes it possible to riff through menus with the mouse down. If I recall, Mac OS menus originally only worked on mouse down; letting go of the mouse while over a menu title closed the menu. Windows, in contrast, would keep the menu open even after the user released the mouse button, which was easier to use. The user didn't have to hold the mouse down throughout the whole menu exploration and command selection operation. This approach was eventually adopted by the Mac OS. But both Windows and OS/X still support mouse down opening and riffing of menus.]

To me, this resolution seems about perfect, and I wish all web app menus worked this way. In contrast, how often have you used one of the clunky always-click-to-open or twitchy open-on-hover web menu implementations and said to yourself, “I wish all my OS/X (or Windows) apps worked this way!”?

To be fair, simply knowing the UI history (or being very observant) isn’t enough — there’s still the question of cost. One could argue that Apple and Microsoft have greater control over the environment than a web site within the constraints of the browser, which is true, but I think that explanation falls short. The fundamental problem seems to be the economics of homegrown UI: for most companies, it’s hard to justify the return on investment to get these details right in order to make a really usable menu bar. (Which, if they get it right, their users won’t even notice.) Apple and Microsoft can each build a perfect menu bar once that many developers can benefit from, so it’s worth their taking the time to get it right.

Google Docs is one web app that has taken the time to sweat the details. Their document editing suite carefully follows the same menu riffing behavior described above: you open the first menu with a click, and subsequent menus with hover:


I’m not sure if Google acquired this finely-tuned menu through Writely or one of the other predecessors to Google Docs, or if they’ve more recently decided that a good way to displace with Microsoft Office is with great usability at a much cheaper price. Either way, it’s details like this that make Google Docs feels like such a reasonable replacement for a desktop application suite. (Thought not perfect yet: Google Docs gets the menu open behavior right, but gets points off for menu closing behavior because they don’t absorb background mouse clicks. And, as referenced above, it doesn’t hide the mouse when you start to type, the way most client text editors or word processors do.)

MenuBar control

I’ve added a MenuBar control to the QuickUI Catalog, along with the usual companions of Menu, MenuItem, and MenuSeparator classes. A Menu can be used on its own, or as part of a MenuBar. When placed inside a MenuBar, the menus will exhibit the riffing behavior described above.

I like the way Google’s visual style puts both the menu title and an open menu on the same seamless surface to visually connect the two regions, so I’ve used that style for a Menu’s generic appearance (the one you get if you don’t want to do any of your own styling).

Although the MenuItem and MenuSeparator classes assume a traditional vertically-oriented list of commands, use of those classes isn’t required, and the Menu class could just as easily be used to present commands in multiple columns or any other arrangement.

Implementation notes

The tricky bit here was making the entire MenuBar and its menus accessible to the mouse, while simultaneously absorbing any background mouse click outside the menu bar or its menus. By default, an individual Menu control supplies its own Overlay so that a Menu can be used on its own or in some other menu bar-like UI construct. The problem is that an Overlay behind a single Menu control will prevent the user from hovering into other menus in the menu bar. So the MenuBar creates its own Overlay control, and turns off the Overlays of the individual Menu controls. The result is the entire menu bar and its menus sit above a shared overlay. The user can hover from one menu to the next, and any clicks on the background overlay are absorbed and cancel the currently-opened menu.

As always, it’s my hope that delivering this behavior in an open, reusable component can eventually change the economics of web usability so that anyone can benefit from the UI design history baked into a component — whether they realize that history is there or not.

There must be 50 ways to close a popup: menus, dropdowns, tooltips, palettes, dialogs, and more

Apps often need to pop up something over the main UI; common examples would be menus and dialogs. Unfortunately, while apps need popups, documents don’t, and until recently HTML was relentlessly document-focused. It’s frustratingly difficult to do a popup well in a contemporary web app, and so it’s not surprising to see so many apps do them poorly or inconsistently.

As a case in point, consider the ways a user might want to dismiss a UI element which has popped up over the main UI. Depending on the specific form of popup, there are a surprisingly large number of methods the popup might support for leaving it:

  1. Click outside the popup. This is the most common means to dismiss a lightweight popup like a menu. The user is saying, “I see you, popup, but don’t want to interact with you; let me get back to the main UI.” When the user clicks on the main UI in the background, a key question arises: what happens with that click? This isn’t an easy question to answer; see below.
  2. Click inside it. Perhaps the user has hovered into an element that’s popped up a tooltip, and maybe the tooltip’s under the mouse. If the tooltip is nothing but static content, the user can generally click anywhere within the popup to dismiss it.
  3. Make a selection. This is a special case of the above point. If the user’s dropped down a combo box and has clicked in an item in the resulting list, they’re not only making a selection, they’re also saying they’re done with the dropdown.
  4. Click a button that explicitly indicates completion. Another special case of point #3. A classic example would be an OK button in a modal dialog, which is essentially a heavyweight form of popup.
  5. Click a close box. A modeless dialog or persistent palette window often relies on a small “×” icon in the upper-right corner as the primary means to dismiss it.
  6. Press Esc. Popups of many flavors can be dismissed by pressing the Escape key.
  7. Wait. A tooltip or transient message may go away all on its own after giving the user time to read its contents.
  8. Hover into another control that produces a popup. The classic example here is menu riffing in Windows or OS/X menu bar. The user must click a menu to open it, but once that first menu is opened, the user can open the next menu simply by hovering into it. (This aspect of menus is worth a closer look in a subsequent blog post.)
  9. Move the focus to another window. Most forms of pop ups are temporary enough that the user doesn’t expect them to stick around. If the user opens a right-click context menu in Google Docs, and then switches to work in a different window, they don’t expect to come back to Google Docs later and find the context menu still open.
  10. Press the ALT key. On Windows, the ALT key or (considerably more obscurely) Shift+F10 are used as the keyboard shortcuts to activate the menu bar (or, in some cases, the selection’s context menu). If the user already has a menu or other popup open, this generally dismisses the popup before activating the menu bar.
  11. Scroll the page with the mouse wheel. Some apps handle this, some don’t. But if a tooltip or context menu was invoked from something that’s being scrolled out of view, there’s probably no reason for the popup to remain open.

    [… Are there other ways? There are a wide range of other user actions that could dismiss a popup, but the others I can think of close the popup as a side effect of a click outside the popup or a loss of window focus.]

Most web apps that create popups seem to consider only a small fraction of these cases. For example, it’s common to have a web app’s menu stay open even when the Escape key is pressed (point #6 above) or the tab or window has lost focus (#9 above).

Some of the above cases have complexities that get overlooked. Point #1 above — handling a click outside the popup — raises the question of what should happen with that outside click. The choices are: a) absorb the click so that it has no effect other than closing the popup, or b) let the click affect as usual whatever element outside the popup the user clicked on. On the web, the latter choice can be easier to handle, but this raises a significant usability risk: if the user clicks outside a menu, and just so happens to do so by clicking on a link, do they really intend to trigger the link’s normal navigational response?

As an illustration, suppose a Facebook user has dropped down the menu on the right side of their current toolbar, and then they decide to close the menu by clicking outside it:



That click outside the menu isn’t just going to dismiss the menu—the click is also going to activate the partially obscured “app request” link. If the mouse were just a few pixels lower, the user would end up launching the process to create an ad.

Most OSes and client apps will absorb a click made outside a popup like a menu so that the user doesn’t accidentally trigger an unintended action. Web apps usually don’t absorb the click. It’s hard to know whether this is intentional or not. I think it’s simply a reflection of the fact that absorbing the outside click in a web app takes more effort. I personally think that effort is worth the trouble to avoid usability issues that can arise if, in the course of dismissing a popup, the user ends up accidentally triggering a background UI element. I think that work is even more worthwhile if it can be folded into a shareable component so that most designers and developers don’t have to ever think about this issue.

Related to the concept of a popup is that of an overlay. To help the user see a heavyweight popup like a modal dialog, many web apps display a “lightbox effect” or other visual treatment. This layer sits visually behind the popup but over the main UI in the background. This overlay is really a distinct UI element, albeit one whose existence is probably seldom noticed. The overlay may not even be visible — it may be entirely transparent! But a transparent overlay is precisely the means one would typically use to absorb clicks outside a popup: a click on the overlay prevents the click from reaching a UI element in the background.

The Popup control and its related classes

Over the past week, I’ve overhauled the Popup base class as part of work towards a new Menu control. One of my goals was to create a base class that handled more of the cases above automatically. For example, I wanted a Popup to absorb outside clicks by default so that most designers won’t have to even think about this, while still leaving the option of letting the outside click go through if the designer really wants that behavior. Similarly, I wanted the various Popup subclasses (like Dialog) and related classes to handle their respective situations better so that anyone using them has an edge in producing UI with good usability.

The base Popup class now gives the designer and developer the ability to smoothly handle many of the dismissal cases above: outside click, inside click, loss of window focus, pressing Esc, etc. Special cases like menu bar hover behavior can be addressed in subclasses (like the forthcoming Menu control).

A Popup control will normally create a companion overlay control to absorb outside clicks. This overlay is generally an instance of the Overlay class. By default, the first click on an overlay dismisses the popup and removes the overlay. A subclass called ModalOverlay can be used for modal dialogs that want to absorb all outside clicks (not just the first), so as to force the user to explicitly dismiss the dialog. The generic appearance of the ModalOverlay class includes a basic lightbox effect. A Popup can also be created with no overlay in situations where it’s important to let outside clicks have their normal effect.

A related class called PopupSource is available for the common case where a persistent UI element (a button, say) invokes an attached popup. PopupSource takes care of positioning the popup in relation to the button which invokes the popup. If space allows, the popup is shown below the button and left-aligned, but if this would cause the popup to extend beyond the viewport, the popup may appear above the button or right-aligned as necessary. PopupSource is used as the base class for ComboBox, so a dropdown produced by a combo box may actually drop up if there’s more room above the combo box and not enough below. This is standard behavior on client OSes, but rare in web sites that have created their own combo box-like elements.

Implementation notes

In dealing with popups, one naturally has to dive into the details of how browsers render one element on top of the other. In this study I was aided by an excellent summary of how DOM elements stack. Having read that, it now seems likely to me that any occurrence of the CSS rule, “z-index: 1000”, can also be read as, “z-index: I don’t really know how this works”.

Predictably, creating a general-purpose Popup class that works reasonably well in a wide variety of configurations on all the mainstream browsers entailed a substantial amount of testing and debugging. IE8 was particularly problematic in this regard.

Controls of the Week: HorizontalPanels and VerticalPanels for basic CSS3 flexbox layouts today

It’s really, really common in UI to place a panel on one or both sides of a main content area, on the left and right or on the top and bottom:






As ubiquitous as these layouts are, until recently it wasn’t easy to create them in HTML and CSS alone. You were either forced to hard-code the heights or widths of the panels, which is gross and hard to maintain — measuring the rendered dimension of a UI element is a task best left to the browser. You could write JavaScript to calculate the dimensions at runtime, but that’s a bunch of work many have avoided.

The CSS Flexible Box Layout Module, a.k.a. “flexbox”, is intended to address layouts like the ones above. For a general introduction to flexbox layout, see CSS3 Flexible Box Layout Explained. This feature hasn’t gotten as much use as it could; as shown on When can I use, it’s not supported on the current (as of this writing) versions of Internet Explorer. Moreover, the flexbox spec changed a while back; only Chrome supports the final spec.

To address older browsers, it’s possible to use a polyfill to support new CSS features. In this case, I wanted to create QuickUI controls to serve as a polyfill for flexbox layout. That is, these should take advantage of flexbox on browsers that support it. On older browsers, they should fall back to simpler flexbox-less CSS in cases where that is sufficient, and otherwise fall back to JavaScript-based layout.

Key attributes

The flexbox layout module can handle many layouts and needs beyond the two shown above, but the two above are common enough that they represent a good starting point.

HorizontalPanels and VerticalPanels controls

I’ve posted HorizontalPanels and VerticalPanels controls that address the layouts described above. They can each handle up to one panel on either side of the content area.

As browser implementations come up to snuff, the components can be updated to take advantage of native CSS flexbox support (including, eventually, the new syntax). You can build a UI using these layout components that will work today (as far back as IE 8), knowing that your UI will capitalize on flexbox support as it become more available.

Implementation notes

The HorizontalPanels and VerticalPanels controls derive from a base class called SimpleFlexBox, which sniffs out support for display: box and its variants. In testing, it seemed only WebKit’s flexbox implementation is worth using today. As of this writing, the Mozilla implementation seems too flaky overall to depend upon. And even on WebKit, I hit what looks like a bug preventing the use of automatic scroll bars in a height-constrained flexbox panel with horizontal orientation, which is a pretty common use case. This means HorizontalPanels can’t always use flexbox layout, even on Chrome. And while I’m interested in testing these controls on IE 10, Microsoft has tied the IE 10 preview to the Windows 8 preview, and I’ve already wasted too much of my life fiddling with Windows betas to care about trying Windows 8 before it’s ready. (Weren’t all the tying-IE-to-Windows shenanigans supposed to end with the DOJ consent decree?)

The height-unconstrained cases can be emulated on older browsers using other CSS (i.e., without doing layout in JavaScript), so again there’s no price to pay unless its necessary. If the only way to perform the layout is JavaScript, the control binds to a newly-overhauled pair of events in the QuickUI framework. There’s now a general-purpose layout event to which any control class can bind if it wants to be notified when the control’s dimensions have changed in response to a window resize. There’s a companion sizeChanged event a control can listen to for changes in the dimensions of its children. This is used by the SimpleFlexBox base class, for example, to listen for any changes in the size of controls in its side panels so it can determine whether it needs to adjust the size of the center content area. SimpleFlexBox only binds to these events in the cases where it needs to manually lay things out, so you’re only paying the price of those events when it’s necessary.

I did hit a weird cross-browser issue in IE9: when I view the VerticalPanels demo in IE9 under Large Fonts, the border for the main content area doesn't quite touch the border for the bottom panel. This can happen in IE9 because elements that size to text content can end up with fractional pixel heights. Since IE9 doesn't support flexbox, in the constrained height scenario SimpleFlexBox needs to examine the height of the top and bottom panels so it can adjust the metrics on the main content area. SimpleFlexBox requires on jQuery's height() function to do this, which turns out to always report integral pixel values. Under certain cases, then, it's possible to end up with a sub-pixel gap between the main content area and the panels — and the gap can become visible if the browser or display is scaling things up (as with Large Fonts). IE9 can report fractional heights via window.getComputedStyle(), but it doesn't seem worth this trouble just to support IE9 under various display edge cases. IE8 reports integral heights, and IE10 should support flexbox, leaving only IE9 with this issue. A simple workaround would be to avoid setting interior borders on the main content area if you're also setting them on the panels.

In any event, it’s nice to be able to wrap up a bunch of browser-dependent styling or code into a reusable component that can handle the details so the component user doesn’t have to. And, IMO, I’m not altogether sure that universal flexbox support will actually eliminate all need for controls like HorizontalPanels or VerticalPanels. Use of those controls in your code can arguably make it easier to clearly state your intent. While the CSS flexbox spec is very, um, flexible, the resulting CSS is not particularly easy to read. I preferred the Dock=“Left” syntax of Microsoft’s DockPanel control to the flexbox syntax, and have tried to mirror the former in designing the API for HorizontalPanels and VerticalPanels. Compare: to set the content of the left panel of HorizontalPanels control, you can stuff that content into a property called “left”. To achieve the same result in CSS3, you omit the “box-flex:” property to ensure the panel won’t stretch. I think the former is easier to read and maintain. Even once everyone has a flexbox-capable browser, these controls might still find use as more legible wrappers around the underlying CSS.

QuickUI 0.8.9 released

A minor update.

Like snapping together a skyscraper: Web components will catalyze a completely new ecosystem for creating UI

In just a few years, the ecosystem in which we create UI will change so dramatically that it will be hard to remember how we did things way back in 2012.

For a sense of perspective, consider a similar change that transpired over a much longer period of time in a different industry: home construction. If you were building a house hundreds of years ago, you might have directly built or overseen most of the elements that went into your house: the framing, the hearth, the chimney, the roof, the windows, doors, you name it. You built nearly everything yourself — there were hardly any components. Depending on where you lived, the only pre-built components you might have used would have been small and simple: glass from a glazier, bricks from a brickmaker, hardware from a blacksmith, and pipes or tiles from a ceramist. Even a glass window would have its surrounding parts — the case or sash, the wooden frame, the sill — measured, cut, and assembled on site and for a specific window. If you hired a craftsman like a carpenter or mason, everything they built for you would have been created on site specifically for your house.

Now build a house in a modern economy. The majority of your home’s elements are components assembled elsewhere by specialists and shipped to your construction site ready for final installation. When you design a house, you now spend a lot of your time looking through catalogs of these components. Most of those components come in standardized dimensions or configurations. Many are quite complex. You can buy an intricate multi-part casement window in a variety of window configurations as a single, complete unit that includes wood, metal, multiple layers of glass, glass treatments, hinges, locks, screens, and other hardware. You can find a similarly dizzying selection of pre-built roof joists, plumbing fixtures, or light sconces, or other components. If you want a component that someone doesn’t already offer for sale, you are either visionary or insane.


Window Styles 1

Window Styles 2

A tiny handful of configurations for window components (source: Window Express)


The componentization of the building industry means you can get a lot more house for a lot less money, and the resulting home can be better suited to your needs. Most of the factory-made components will be of better quality than what any one individual could make themselves on site. (It’s the site-built skylights that leak, not the factory-made ones.) And not only is the resulting building different; the component ecosystem brings about myriad new roles and industries.

Now consider software, where we’ve labored for years hand-crafting every element of the user experience like a medieval builder. The browser or OS gives us a tiny number of simple UI primitives; we must write nearly everything else in the UI by hand. For simple designs that are essentially fancy documents, one can use a visual editor of the Adobe DreamWeaver ilk, but you still have to roll up your sleeves. And any UI that affords any significant degree of interactively is created substantially in code on either the back end or front end. To the extent that UI code is “shared”, most often it’s actually copied and then hacked to fit, rather than implemented with a truly shareable component. If you did static analysis of the UI code for the 100 most popular web apps, I’ll bet you’d find that only a tiny percentage of that UI code is actually shared with another organization.

If only there were some standard for composing and extending web UI components, we’d be able to unleash a UI ecosystem that would transform the UI world as thoroughly as the physical building component ecosystem has changed home construction.

The UI field may actually undergo a bigger transformation, because the software world isn’t subject to the same constraints as the physical world. It is possible to create responsive UI components that change based on the device context, meta-controls that generate UI from more basic controls, adaptable components that change based on the user’s abilities and experience, and components that directly exploit third-party services.

With such tools in hand, it should be possible to create huge, complex interfaces in a fraction of the time it currently takes, and for far less money. You’ll be able to assemble the UI of a significant application very quickly, and get something interesting that in many ways actually works. It will be like snapping together building parts to create a skyscraper.

This transformation is still in the future, but it’s coming. One important step here is Google now taking the lead on a spec for web components that will standardize how components are defined and interact. A good summary can be found in Web Components Explained. (Years ago, Microsoft tried to promulgate a standard for HTML Components, but it never caught on.) While closure on the web component spec is still off in the future — and broad availability is, of course, even further away — this new world is coming.

This can’t happen soon enough. It will finally free us from having to waste such an ungodly amount of time attending to the design, coding, and testing of common user interface patterns, and let us move our attention up the value ladder to focus more on our own products’ domains.

This development will ultimately commoditize some large portion of the industry’s UI output. As with the building industry, commoditization of UI elements will catalyze the creation of new roles in the UX industry: specialists who create components, component integrators, component testing labs, standards groups, and many more people in more organiziations creating better UI because they can start with solid, usable components addressing many of their needs.

I’m excited by what this will mean for the QuickUI control framework. Google’s web component spec will eventually let the browser natively address the lowermost functions which QuickUI must currently perform in JavaScript. This will enable much better performance, better isolation and modularity, and faster adoption. It’s too early to say how QuickUI evolve in this regard, but I want to direct its evolution such that it will transition smoothly to the standard web component foundation when that becomes widely available. Among other things, I’d looking at how to evolve the open QuickUI Catalog of common UI controls so that they can someday be delivered as web components on the standard foundation. The goal is that someone using QuickUI controls today will find their investment preserved and profitable when the component future arrives.

If you’re interested in tracking Google’s work on the topic, they are posting announcements on Google+ on the Web Components page.

Control of the Week: Pinterest-style PackedColumns efficiently fills space with tiles of varying heights

Image-sharing site Pinterest is the current darling of the social media world, and the core of its user experience is its attractively-designed home page:




This page takes good advantage of available window real estate. As the user makes the window wider, the page re-lays out the columns of image tiles (or “pins”, in the parlance of the site) to take advantage of the extra width:


Pinterest (Wider)


The page must accommodate a wide range of tile heights, as the photos have different aspect ratios, and the number of comments per pin can vary. If the page simply laid out the tiles in a strict grid, it would waste a great deal of space. To use the space more efficiently, the page employs a “packed columns” layout.

Key attributes

The packed columns layout algorithm is straightforward:

  1. Divide available width by the standard item width to determine how many columns can fit.
  2. Make all columns initially empty.
  3. For each item in turn, add the item to the column which is currently shortest.

The simplicity of this algorithm is such that it’s been independently recreated multiple times. The algorithm has some nice properties:

The last point speaks to another benefit of the algorithm which doesn’t show up in Pinterest, but does show up in other applications: the consistent relative positions of items means you can offer users the ability to specify an order or prioritization for the items that affects (but doesn’t completely determine) where items end up. I used this years ago in the design for a home page for Microsoft Money, a personal finance application whose home page included a user-customizable set of home page modules. A Settings dialog let the user specify the priority of those modules by dragging the modules within a one-dimensional list. While the ultimate two-dimensional position of the modules depended on the window width and the modules’ current heights, the priority of any given module determined how close to the top of the page that module would end up. This limited degree of customization was sufficient to meet many users’ needs without having to create a full-blown customizable layout UI.


I’ve added a PackedColumns control to the QuickUI Catalog. There’s a link to a demo that simulates the general appearance of Pinterest’s home page. (I initially centered the items in the demo the way Pinterest does, but turned centering off to make it easier to observe the layout behavior.)

Usage: Use PackedColumns to arrange a collection of child elements whose widths are fixed but whose heights vary substantially. If the heights are relatively consistent, users will likely find a traditional grid presentation easier to interpret and use.


Given the simplicity of the algorithm, this wasn’t all that hard to code up. I expect it’s not necessarily the actual cost of a layout like this that deters sites from adopting it. Rather, it’s the current need to independently discover or reverse-engineer behavior like this that most inhibits its adoption. As design knowledge gets coded into controls, however, such UI should become more pervasive.

In essence, an ability to easily create and adopt create web components will lead to a commodification of user interface elements. Today Pinterest’s insight and ability to create a packed columns layout may confer a slight competitive edge, but someday commodification will quickly eliminate such edges. This will be true not just for UI elements that can easily be independently created, but for nearly anything. The day after a new site launches with a cool new UI trick, that trick will be copied and packaged up as an openly available and readily adoptable UI control anyone can use.

UI Control of the Week: Repeater control generates multiple copies of UI elements

User interfaces invariably entail a certain degree of repetition; they’re filled with vertical or horizontal sequences of UI elements that behave identically are are styled identically. Sometimes the elements in such a sequence vary only in their label, and sometimes even that doesn’t vary; the controls really are all exactly the same. As an example, if we go back to the first post in this series on UI controls, we find that Apple’s sliding pages with dots control contains a horizontal sequence of little dot buttons. The variant of this control on Apple’s web Store uses blue dots:

Apple Store Sliding Pages

Those little dots along the bottom don’t contain any data, and so their DOM representation of each is essentially identical. (The blue selected state comes from a style applied with a class.) Sequences of completely identical UI elements like this are relatively rare in a production UI. During design and development, however, it’s pretty common to want to throw a bunch of placeholder controls into the UI. Early in the design process, a prototype’s toolbar might have buttons labeled, “Button 1”, “Button 2”, “Button 3”, and so on, until the team can work out exactly what commands they want to offer users there.

But, despite the repetition, creating a collection of buttons like that is generally a manual process: the designer or developer must manually create a set of buttons, and carefully give them each a unique, placeholder name. Alternatively, one writes a bit of throwaway script to generate a given number of controls, although that can take a few minutes to work up.

The recent post on placeholder controls pointed out that it can be worthwhile to have a UI control even if it’s only used during the design process; anything that saves time helps. Here, I think it’s interesting to have a control specifically for the task of generating repetitions in a UI. As with the previously-discussed ListBox, this is effectively a higher-order meta-control: a control that creates or manipulates other controls. This can be useful for mocking things up during design. And, per the Apple example above, it might even be useful in production UI.


The QuickUI Catalog contains a Repeater control. Given a control class and a number, it will create that many instances of that class. If you create a Repeater and give it a dot button class and a count of 5, you’ll get:


Repeater Dots 5


With that in hand, you can easily bump the count up or down to get whatever number you need. If you want to see what things look like with 20 copies of the dot control, instead of doing a cut-and-paste of your UI code, you can just change the desired count to 20:


Repeater Dots 20


If you give the Repeater some content, each generated copy of the control will end up with that content. Here a Repeater has been told to create 5 instances of a simple button class and set their content to the text, “Button”:


Repeater Buttons 5


For a bit of variety, you can also ask the Repeater to append an incrementing integer to the content:


Repeater Buttons 5 with Increment


This is another one of those controls that, now that I have it, I end up using quite a bit. When poking around with a layout idea, it’s great to be able to fill up the UI quickly with a sequence of elements.

Implementation notes

It’s easy enough to create a one-off bit of JavaScript that creates an arbitrary number of controls, but why rewrite that code every time you need it? By investing just a bit of time in creating a reusable component, even that simple bit of code has already been written for you.

The implementation of Repeater has become simpler over time as the QuickUI framework has gotten better at supporting the creation of meta-controls. These controls generally have one or more properties that accept a control class as a value. Creating such a property is easily done in a single line using a Control.property() declaration. A recent update to the QuickUI runtime makes it also possible to pass in arbitrary UI in Control JSON format, so you can use the Repeater control to generate n copies of some brand-new UI fragment containing a mixture of other controls.

As suggested above, a Repeater is incorporated into the implementation of the Catalog’s SlidingPagesWithDots and RotatingPagesWithDots (which adds automatic rotation) controls. Once the number of children (pages) is known, the control can simply pass that number to the Repeater’s count() property to generate the required number of dot buttons.

UI Controls of the Week: Making HTML check boxes and radio buttons work the way they should have in the first place

Here’s the current Sign In UI on a typical e-commerce web site (United Airlines, one of the largest airlines in North America) with a minor but common user interface bug:


United Airlines Sign In


The bug is this: the “Remember me” check box can only be checked by clicking the tiny 13 by 13 pixel square; clicking the text label for the check box has no effect. This minor but common bug appears on many web sites because an HTML <input> check box on its own can’t define a label. The label can only be defined by creating a separate <label> tag. I have no idea who came up with this arrangement, and can only imagine that this was intended to allow flexibility. It does allow, for example, a check box label to be placed above, under, or to the left of, a check box. But this flexibility comes at a cost: many web developers aren’t aware of the need for <label> tags, and so they end up with check boxes with static, unclickable labels. HTML radio buttons suffer from the same issue.

Of course, users have been long trained by client OSes that the text next to a check box or radio button should be clickable. It makes sense, after all, to give the user a large hit area (especially on a touch device). If the site above were to correctly define a check box label, the hit target would be 600% times as large as using the box alone, at no additional cost in screen real estate. Furthermore, the UI would be more accessible to a larger population, including vision-impaired people using screen readers.

The situation is improving, and a quick survey of some highly-trafficked web sites shows that many of them do correctly define labels for check boxes and radio buttons. But even some popular sites do not, or don’t do so consistently. Quantcast estimates the above United Airlines site gets about 1M U.S. visitors a month, and it’s fair to guess that some significant portion of those people are being driven through the faulty Sign In UI above.

The problem persists because here it’s harder to create a correct UI than an incorrect one. For the correct result here, the developer has to:

  1. Hear about the need for the <label> tag and learn how it works.
  2. Remember to use a <label>.
  3. Set an ID on the <input> element.
  4. Create the <label> element.
  5. Type in the user-visible text.
  6. Set the label’s “for” attribute to the input element’s ID.

In contrast, to create this check box the wrong way, the developer just has to:

  1. Type in the user-visible text.

A check box created the wrong way looks pretty much like one created the right way, so it can be hard for the team creating the UI to spot the bug. And, of course, when the problem exists in UI that’s generally shown only to new users (like the UI above), team members will rarely be exposed to the bug themselves.

Usability experts can exhort the correct use of <label> tags until they’re blue in the face, but a real fix requires that it be easier to create a correct UI than an incorrect UI. Client OSes have made this easy for years, and I can probably count on one hand the number of times I’ve seen a check box in a client app in which the text was not correctly clickable.

Oh, and one more thing. On the web, it turns out that even if you do things the way you’re told to, your check box or radio button UI may still have a tiny bug. By default WebKit and Mozilla put an unclickable 3px margin around the input element. So even if you use a <label> tag in the recommended fashion, you still end up with a 3 pixel gap (highlighted below in red) between the input element and the label:


Check Box Label Gap


Clicks in this gap have no effect! This is a teeny tiny bug that nevertheless happens to show up in WebKit and Mozilla on nearly every web site. (IE takes care to leave no gap.) This probably means that on any given day thousands of users happen to click in that gap, and are puzzled that nothing has happened before they quickly click again. I noticed that one site, Gmail, carefully works around this very issue by overriding the margins on the check box and label to eliminate the gap. Once again, it seems the platform makes it harder to create a correct UI than an incorrect one.

CheckBox and RadioButton

I’ve added CheckBox and RadioButton controls to the QuickUI Catalog that implicitly associate a label with an input element, and close up the gap described above.

These aren’t particularly fancy or interesting components, but they’re nevertheless simple to use and solve the problem defined above. I wish HTML check boxes and radio buttons had always worked like this.

Implementation notes

Both CheckBox and RadioButton inherit from a LabeledInput base class that creates the automatic link between the label and the input element.

I originally implemented the LabeledInput base class as an inline div containing an input and a label element, and had some JavaScript explicitly link the two elements with a generated ID. But then I noticed something interesting on Gmail’s sign in page: the input element is inside the label element, right before the static text. I’ve never seen this approach documented on pages that describe the use of <label>. Every site seems to document the label appearing in the HTML immediately after the input. But putting the input inside the label seems to work in all the mainstream browsers. The advantage of this approach is that there’s no need to set the “for” attribute on the label; the label automatically binds to the input element it contains.

Taking another hint from Gmail, the LabeledInput class also sets margins so as to leave no gap between the input element and the adjacent text.

Finally, as an extra bonus, the RadioButton control solves an annoyance specific to HTML radio buttons. An HTML developer must manually designate an internal radio button group name for each radio button in the group that should work together (i.e., which should be mutually exclusive). This isn’t hard to do, but it’s still an extra step, and more work than should really be necessary. So, by default, if you don’t explicitly put a RadioButton into a group, it will automatically group itself with any siblings (with the same DOM parent) that are similarly ungrouped.

Catalog control documentation now includes description of control properties and other methods

The documentation for the QuickUI Catalog, which now contains 60+ controls, has been updated to include documentation of each class’ properties and methods.

Previously, the only way to see how to use a control was to read the original control source code on GitHub. Now the descriptions for a class’ members are extracted from the source, and then used to populate the documentation page for that class. For example, the ListBox source is parsed to create the ListBox documentation page.

UI Controls of the Week: Quickly fill up a UI mockup with photos, placeholder text, and ads

When you’re designing a new UI, you often need to experiment with a variety of UI layouts in advance of having content that’s representative of what your UI will eventually display. This is a good thing — you don’t want to be burdened with the task of creating meaningful content when you’re focused on layout and navigation flow. In the exploratory stages of design work, it’s also important for you, or your design’s reviewers, to not get caught up too much in the generation of sample content.

This is why designers have long used Lorem Ipsum placeholder text to fill up a design. It looks like real text (which would not be the case if you simply mashed the keyboard), and you can generate an infinite amount of it to fill up any design you’re working on. Most designers also have a collection of placeholder images or advertisements they can use to fill up a design mockup. One service will dynamically serve up placeholder photos of kittens, although I’d imagine the conspicuous presence of zillions of kittens will be highly distracting for most web site designs.

Although end users never see these sorts of placeholders, they’re nevertheless an essential element in the software development process. I’ve yet to see placeholder components included in a UI library, but it seems eminently reasonable for these placeholders to be packaged up as reusable controls. Anything that cuts down on design time is money in your company’s pocket.

With that in mind, the QuickUI library now has several placeholder controls:



The LoremIpsum control generates an arbitrary number of paragraphs of Lorem Ipsum text. You can control number the number of sentences per paragraph. By default, the first sentence of the first LoremIpsum control starts with “Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet…”, but you can control that as well.


The FlickrInterestingPhoto control grabs a photo from Flickr’s Interestingness collection for the previous day. You can pick one of Flickr’s standard image sizes, or you can use CSS to scale the photo to an arbitrary size.

I use Flickr for this control because it’s free, has a good API, has high-quality images, and the images will change each day. It’d be pretty straightforward to adapt the control to another photo service.


Finally, the AdPlaceholder control creates a rectangle the size of any IAB standard ad unit, or you can specify an arbitrary size.

I’ve looked for a server that would serve up meaningful ad images, but haven’t found one. Some sites will give you a small set of ad placeholders, but they’re too boring to be convincing, and the small size of the sample set means you get too much repetition. An ad placeholder service would be quite useful. It would give advertisers free exposure, although the ad server would need to be rigged to not count such impressions as meaningful. All this means that it’s hard to provide a general-purpose ad placeholder control. It would be quite easy, on the other hand, to create an ad placeholder control that worked against a specific ad server and ad account.


Using placeholders like these let you quickly fill up a mockup. E.g., the demo for the PersistentPanel control uses all three types to block out a fairly interesting layout on the fly:


PersistentPanel (side)


In practice, I’ve discovered that these dynamic placeholder controls deliver a substantial benefit over relying on static content: the random content forces me to cope with layout situations I might not expect or encounter until far later in the development process. Designers have a innate tendency towards perfection, and invariably pick sample content to make a layout look as appealing as possible. For example, a design for a window will typically show a set of content that perfectly fills the window, but as I noted long ago, such a design is probably too good to be true. Your team will end up evaluating a design according to a degree of theoretical perfection that will never be seen in production. By building mockups around dynamic content, you force yourself to recognize and adapt to a more meaningful range of text run lengths, picture aspect ratios, and so on.

UI Control of the Week: TabSet for traditional tabbed pages

This week's control is the standard tabbed page UI found throughout client apps and web sites. Here's a typical example, from iTunes Preferences:

ITunes Preferences

Key attributes

TabSet control

I've posted a TabSet control in the QuickUI Catalog that manages a set of tabs:


The pages within the TabSet can be any type of element or control, although for convenience a Tab control is provided to make it easy to set the page's descriptive label.

Usage: Use a TabSet when you need to fit a large number of controls into a comparatively small space, and the controls can be grouped into meaningful tabs with clear labels. The controls in each tab should generally only have local effects within that tab's UI; it would be extremely confusing if checking a box in one tab disabled some control on a different tab.

A scrolling page may often be a simpler alternative to a tabbed UI. One advantage tabs do have is that the labeled tab buttons provide a summary; they help give the user an overview of what object properties, navigational areas, etc., are available. To the extend the tab labels are meaningful and clearly reflect the tab's contained controls, this labeled structure may accelerate a user's search for a particular control.

Implementation notes

I've built TabSet top of a more primitive control called Switch. Switch acts as a container for other elements, and will only show one of those elements at a time. (The "Switch" name is inspired by the "switch" statement in programming languages like C and JavaScript.) There are actually plenty of cases where a UI will contain a mutually-exclusive set of elements, and not all of these cases happen to look like tabs, so upon reflection it's somewhat surprising to me that more UI toolkits don't offer something like a Switch control.

In this case, the TabSet wraps a Switch, adding a List of buttons and populating them with the description() property of the corresponding tabs.

The trickiest part of TabSet turned out to be handling the common case in which the TabSet itself should be as tall as its tallest tab (regardless of the individual tab heights). This allows for a consistent border or background, which helps the user interpret the disparate tabs as being closely related; it also avoids potential document reflow when the user switches tabs. The standard ad hoc solution in a case like this is to force all the elements to a known height (e.g., in pixels), but hard-coding element sizes seems like a cop-out if one's goal is to create a flexible control that handle a wide range of content. It seems like TabSet (or, actually, Switch) should be able to inspect the height of its contained elements and automatically resize itself to be as tall as the tallest contained element. This gets tricky because Switch normally hides all pages except the one which is active, and the height of an element hidden with display: none is reported as zero. To work around this, the underlying Switch class has been modified so that, in the auto-maximizing case like this, Switch hides the inactive pages with visibility: hidden instead (which lets the elements report their correct height), then uses absolute positioning to superimpose and top-align the pages.

A related complexity arose in the case shown in the TabSet demo: the height of a tab may change based on asynchronously loaded content (e.g., an image). So the update of any tab's content, even one which isn't currently visible, may potentially force the TabSet to resize. Unfortunately, there isn't a standard DOM resize event for elements other than elements the user can resize (such as the window). So QuickUI controls have to make do by raising a custom event when they resize, allowing controls like Switch to adjust their height accordingly.

It's boring details like resizing that forces most designers to throw up their hands and resort to hard-coded pixel dimensions, but UI controls that can flexibly handle dynamic content are ultimately far easier to use and work with as a design evolves.

Using QuickUI controls in plain JavaScript

I’ve heard from people who are interested in using QuickUI (including the controls I’ve been discussing here in Control of the Week posts), but who want to do so in pure JavaScript. If this sounds like you, I have good news:

  1. The framework has received a number of updates over the past two months such that it is now practical to use QuickUI in pure JavaScript and CSS.
  2. I’ve put together an interactive tutorial that shows you how to do this.

Until now, it’s been easiest to develop in QuickUI using a proprietary HTML-like markup language which, though nice and compact, also necessitates the need for a client-side compiler. Now that the markup requirement has been removed, you should be able to use any of the QuickUI controls described here in any web app.

By the way, the above link will take you to a new, separate QuickUI blog that’s intended as a more technical resource for people already using the framework. I intend to keep the flow|state blog here as a separate venue for discussing UI design topics. Posts here may touch on QuickUI (given my current work), but my goal is that those posts will still be interesting and relevant to an audience of designers who don’t code or aren’t interested in coding.

I'd just like to offer thanks to the individuals who have provided me with feedback on the evolving shape of QuickUI. Your thoughtful commentary has been invaluable!

Updated tutorial for JavaScript-only QuickUI development

The new QuickUI Tutorial shows you how to use QuickUI in plain JavaScript, without the need for a proprietary markup language or client-side compiler.

The tutorial is divided into two sections: the first shows how you can use QuickUI controls in your site (e.g., one mostly constructed via some other tool), and the second shows how to create your own QuickUI controls. The tutorial is built around small interactive coding exercises, each of which demonstrates some aspect of the framework. Due to current limitations of the code editor, the tutorial is not functional in IE8 and Safari. It works fine in Chrome, Firefox, and IE9.

The existing markup tutorial has been moved to a new Markup section that also now hosts the Downloads page for the client-side compiler. This reorganization helps emphasize the fact that the use of QuickUI markup is an optional, somewhat advanced mode of use; markup is no longer required to use or create QuickUI controls.

This tutorial represents the first of several forthcoming steps to make QuickUI more appealing to a wider JavaScript audience.

UI Control of the Week: Coding a ListInlay pattern that lets user expand list items in place

I think the concept of a pattern language is a useful lens with which to consider interface design, but we don’t have to settle for patterns as static, textual descriptions. The first pattern language was grounded in the domain of physical architecture, and while the concept was deeply insightful, many people have applied it to the domain of software user interface design without, I believe, recognizing that the constraints of building architecture don’t apply to software design. Given a properly expressive UI framework, many UI techniques described as patterns can be implemented in code.

I’ve been a fan of attempts to catalogue UI patterns since I first came across Jenifer Tidwell’s Common Ground. Tidwell’s latest work is presented in her recent second edition of Designing Interfaces. Many of the patterns it describes contain some non-trivial element that can be given a functional manifestation in code. To use an analogy from programming languages, UI patterns are somewhat similar to abstract base classes. Such a class defines some, but not all, of the behavior necessary to create a useful result. In my mind, the more interesting a UI pattern is, the more likely it is that some aspect of the textual description can be identified and coded in a reusable UI control.

Take, for example, the List Inlay pattern, in which a list lets the user expand an item to see more detail in place. Tidwell points to Amazon’s mobile review UI as one example:


Amazon Mobile Reviews (Collapsed)


Each list item shows a capsule review. Tapping a review expands the item in place to show the full review text and some additional details:


Amazon Mobile Reviews (Expanded)


Key attributes:

A List Inlay can also be used to implement the common “Accordion” user interface pattern as well. As far as I can tell, there’s not much hard difference between these two patterns. A List Inlay is essentially an Accordion which shows live data, whereas the UI elements described as Accordions tend to have static headings that have been hand-authored to summarize their contents. Beyond that, to me these two patterns seem nearly the same.

ListInlay control

Here, the above attributes of the List Inlay pattern are fairly straightforward to code. With those requirements in mind, I’ve created a ListInlay control for the QuickUI Catalog:




Usage: Tidwell suggests using a List Inlay when…

Each item has interesting content associated with it, such as the text of an email message, a long article, a full-size image, or details about a file’s size or date. The item details don’t take up a large amount of space, but they’re not so small that you can fit them all in the list itself. You want the user to see the overall structure of the list and keep that list in view all the time, but you also want her to browse through the items easily and quickly.

In contrast, if the item details are complex, or offer substantial editing capabilities, it may be more appropriate to navigate to the details in a separate window or dialog, or show the details in a separate detail pane, rather than expanding them inline.

The ListInlay class permits a single item to be expanded at a time, so clicking a new item to expand it will collapse any previously-selected item. I’ve also created a multiple-select variation called MultiListInlay that permits multiple items to be expanded at once.

Caution: Some applications use a variation of this UI for navigation, e.g., as an accordion pane on the left side of an app window. It’s not uncommon for such apps to dock the list items to the top or bottom of the navigation pane (with the selected item filling the remaining space in the middle). I believe such a UI is likely to exhibit usability problems: at large window sizes, a user looking at the navigation items docked to the top of the pane could easily overlook additional items docked to the bottom.

Implementation notes

This control was a pleasure to code up. A ListInlay is just a subclass of the previously-discussed ListBox meta-control that, by default, uses a Collapsible to represent list items. Combining these two controls worked right away, and from there it was simply a matter of customizing how ListInlay renders a list item’s selected state. Instead of just adding a CSS “selected” class, the list also needs to invoke the Collapsible’s collapsed() property. (I.e., when an item is selected, it’s collapsed property should be set to false.)

The real treat was that basing this control off of ListBox means that, with no additional work, ListInlay offers basic keyboard navigation. The control’s generic appearance doesn’t show the selected state, but once the list has focus, you can navigate the list with the Up and Down keys. It was a pleasant surprise to see that the navigation UI played well with the expand/collapse animation; score one for Separation of Concerns.

It’s hard to describe, but this sort of coding reminds me a lot of coding in Lisp. In Lisp you can make use of higher-order functions like mapcar to concisely express complex calculations. In the same vein, coding in QuickUI often entails using a meta-control like ListBox to quickly create the reasonably complex behavior of something like ListInlay.

Of course, the point of a control like ListInlay isn’t that it’s a polished, production-ready result in its own right. As with an abstract base class, what makes it useful is that it could form the basis of something interesting. As I’m going through “Designing Interfaces”, it’s possible to pick out those patterns whose interaction details are consistent or specific enough that they could similarly be translated directly to code. I’m adding the most interesting such patterns to the QuickUI road map for future work.


I'll be traveling this week to Dublin, Ireland, for the Interaction 2012 conference. If you'll be there, please drop me a line!

QuickUI 0.8.8 released

A small breaking change in this release:

<Control name=”MyControl”>


<Control className=”MyControl”>

This change allows some consistency with the run-time function className(), and also reduces the chances for confusion if a Control class itself wants to define a “name” property. This is a breaking change, so markup users will need to download/build the latest qb tool, and force a rebuild of their project.

UI Control of the Week: Google-style TransientMessage to show quick, modeless progress or confirmation

Sometimes an application has to deliver to the user a brief, non-vital message. A number of sites, including Google’s app suite, show such messages in a transient popup that presents a small bit of information for a second or two, then disappears on its own. Here’s a typical “Loading…” message, which appears over the standard Google toolbar:


Google Docs Loading Indicator


An earlier generation of client applications might have shown such information in a status bar. One disadvantage of a status bar is that it’s always there, which not only takes up room, but can inure a user to its presence; they might easily overlook a message that appears there briefly. In contrast, the very appearance of Google’s “Loading…” message over the top of the toolbar helps draw attention to the message.

The “Loading…” message above obviously disappears when the loading operation has completed. In other cases, the message is used to confirm the successful completion of an operation. For example, if you use Cozi to send a shopping list to a family member’s mobile phone, a transient message lets you know the list has been sent successfully. In these cases, a message typically remains visible for about two seconds before fading away, in order to give the user enough time to read it. This sort of message UI may be preferable to a traditional modal confirmation dialog in cases like these where because the information is not vital. If the user happens to look away while the message is visible, they can nevertheless assume the operation worked; the message is just providing explicit confirmation. The fact that the message fades away on its own avoids forcing the user to take a second to dismiss it manually.

Key attributes


I’ve posted a TransientMessage control to the QuickUI Catalog. As you’ll see on that page, I’m experimenting with the impressive, embeddable ACE code editor from Ajax.org to let you experiment with controls directly within the Catalog documentation. If this works out, I’ll look at rolling it out to the rest of the Catalog. (Known issue: The page with the code editor doesn't work in IE8 yet.)

As usual, the generic styling of the message can be changed to suit an application’s visual aesthetic.

Use a TransientMessage to deliver a short message, e.g., as a modeless indicator of a short operation (the loading example above) or as a confirmation of an operation that has just completed. If the message text is more than a simple sentence, or if it’s critical that the user acknowledge the message, consider a standard JavaScript alert or a Dialog instead.

Implementation notes

This control is built on top of the general-purpose Popup base class, making implementation relatively straightforward. One side effect of this implementation is that any click the user makes while the message is displayed will dismiss the message. In future versions, it might be nice to let the user continue to interact with the UI during the short period while the message is visible.