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Single Page Design Madness

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A few days passed, a couple lessons learned. I promised myself not to spend too much time trying to make something perfect, but rather keep a lean approach and moving forward.

So far, and as expected, I’ve implemented markdown in the client-side, but while implementing this I also spent a good deal of time fine-tuning the site’s design. What I changed is the way in which I was going to constraint browser support.

Not so progressively enhanced

Hey, this is a technical blog, I don’t need no stinkin’ IE.

I’ll support IE 10, but that’s as far as I’m willing to go right off the bat. Things like localStorage and history are supported by IE8+ and IE10+ respectively, and I didn’t want to spend my time patching behavior in earlier versions of IE just yet.

When I first though about this project I wanted it to be mobile first, but in order to publish a working version early in 2013 rather than later, I’ll be dedicating myself to the mobile aspect later on, though I’m build the site with mobile in mind.

As I went along this past couple of days, I focused on two things.

  • Front-end design, which got to a point where I’m pretty comfortable at
  • The way in which I’m going to handle the fact that the page is going to behave (given that the idea is to use a single-page approach)

Front-end design

On the HTML side of things, I’m really enjoying jade, it definitely sped up my productivity, and thirty minutes into development I felt really comfortable about it. I feel it’s the perfect fit for Node. The single thing I like the most is how I write my classes and IDs in the same way I write CSS selectors. If you haven’t yet, don’t be as skeptical as I was about giving a try. It’s awesome.

I thought about trying out SASS, but I’m not really a fan of their propietary syntax, and LESS was so much easier to install. So LESS it is.

Other than that, I’m not really a fan of using CSS frameworks, so I did most of it by hand, or copying from older projects, which always comes in handy.

I tried to keep my CSS as reusable as posible, so I implemented common styles for my buttons, headings, and inputs, which will definitely help in any upcoming additions to the site.

Since I suck so much at picking color schemes, and the MongoDB site is pretty, I took their color scheme for simplicity.

I didn’t pick a code prettify scheme yet for code blocks, mostly because I couldn’t find a decent one.

I’ll settle on implementing a color scheme for code blocks by myself, once I get around to it though. It’s not an immediate concern anyways.

Client-side templates

In the beginning I was certain I wanted some sort of lightweight templating engine to handle my single-page design requirements. I’m liking the solution at which I’ve arrived a lot, so I figured I’d write about it.

The entire site is laid out in a single page, which contains the layout and includes every view template that can be rendered, but initially hidden.

For example, lets talk about the template to post a new blog entry. entry.jade

In the page, I include the template as such:

include templates/entry

script(src='/js/entry.js')

This is of course, not as scalable as I’d like it to be, but I didn’t take the time, yet, to search for and implement a proper asset management system, which would be the appropriate solution to keep view templates self contained.

I’m not exactly sure going forward how I’m going to handle templates that actually require a view model, but for now, a jade template will do just fine.

This is, as of right now, entry.jade:

section#entry-template.template(data-class='entry-writing')
  form#entry-editor(method='POST',action='/write-entry')
    div#entry-title-editor
      label(for='entry-title')='Title'
      input#entry-title(type='text',name='entry.title')

    div#wmd-button-bar-brief.wmd-button-bar
    div
      textarea#wmd-input-brief.wmd-input.entry-brief(name='entry.brief')

    div#wmd-button-bar-text.wmd-button-bar
    div
      textarea#wmd-input-text.wmd-input.entry-text(name='entry.text')

    article.blog-entry
      header.blog-entry-title
      section#wmd-preview-brief.blog-entry-brief
      section#wmd-preview-text.blog-entry-text

    div#entry-editor-buttons
      input(type='submit',value='Post')

My templating engine will have to deal with displaying or hiding the template as required, through a simple yet powerful system I defined.

The client-side markdown implementation is not the topic in discussion, so I’ll refrain from posting the entire entry.js for now, this is the snippet that registers the template with the templating engine.

nbrut.tt.add({
    key: 'entry-editor',
    alias: '/write-entry',
    trigger: '#write-entry',
    source: '#entry-template',
    title: { value: 'New Post', formatted: true },
    onAfterActivate: onAfterActivate
});

This seemingly innocent function call does a few things. The most important of them are parsing the DOM for the template and storing it in a key value dictionary, alongside the provided settings.

function read(template) {
    var s = $(template.source);
    if (s.length !== 1){
        throw new Error('template source not unique.');
    }
    var css = s.data('class');
    var html = s.remove().html();

    template.dom = {
        html: html,
        css: css
    };
}

Then it’s simply stored in the dictionary:

templates[settings.key] = settings;

And now we can activate the template at any time, making it visible:

nbrut.tt.activate('entry-editor');

Forcing people to use the Javascript console isn’t what I had in mind, so I naturally added a click handler to activate the template:

trigger.on('click', function(e){
    if (e.which === 1){ // left-click
        activate(settings.key);
        return false;
    }
});

The point of using the which property is that I’m a huge fan of opening new tabs for just about anything using my mouse wheel, and it infuriates me when I can’t do that.

Ultimately, when you click on the button, and a template is to be activated, a few things happen.

function activate(key) {
    var template = templates[key];
    if (template === undefined) {
        template = templates['404']; // fall back to 404.
    }

    if(!template.initialized){
        template.initialized = true;
        template.initialize();
    }

    if(template.container in active) {
        if(active[template.container] === template && !template.selfCleanup) {
            return; // already active.
        } else {
            deactivateContainer(template.container); // clean-up.
        }
    }

    activateTemplate(template); // set-up.

    template.onAfterActivate();
}

We’ll come back to the first if clause later. The template initialization is going to prove useful when some sort of one-time preparation for a particular template is required.

The third if clause introduces a new dictionary, the active dictionary. This one keeps track of which template is active in each container managed by the templating engine. If the container is active, then it gets deactivated, which is a glorified way of saying the container is emptied.

If the template doesn’t need to refresh itself when it’s already active, we don’t need to do anything.

Once the template is defined, initialized, and the container is ready, the template is set up in activateTemplate, and then any post-activation callback that has been provided, executes.

function activateTemplate(template){
    var c = $(template.container);
    if (c.length !== 1){
        throw new Error('template container not unique.');
    }
    c.html(template.dom.html);
    c.attr('class',template.dom.css);
    active[template.container] = template;

    if (template.container === defaults.container){
        var title = setTitle(template.title);
    }
}

There isn’t a lot to mention about activateTemplate, except perhaps that the document title is only updated if template.container === defaults.container, which means a full view render took place, instead of just a partial render.

What now? History navigation

Now we have a templating system to go back and forth between our different view templates, which is awesome (and incredibly fast), but this wouldn’t be as fancy if it didn’t let users navigate like they’re used to, through the back and forward buttons in their browsers, so we need to implement history navigation.

There are a couple of aspects to this. First of all, since we are already switching views on the client side, rather on the server side, we might as well do the routing on the client side:

server.get('/*', function(req,res){
    res.render('index.jade');
});

It’s not like I’m going to get to 20 million monthly page views anytime soon, but that’s no excuse for not improving the experience of the few adventuring ones that dare navigate my site.

So now every single GET request that hits my site receives the same response. A single page containing templates that enable me to render any of my views. We have three things to take care of now:

  • Dealing with 404 errors appropriately
  • Keeping track of the user’s navigation history
  • Landing page that corresponds to the navigation history

To keep track of a user’s navigation history, lets go back to the way in which we registered a view template:

nbrut.tt.add({
    key: 'entry-editor',
    alias: '/write-entry',
    trigger: '#write-entry',
    source: '#entry-template',
    title: { value: 'New Post', formatted: true },
    onAfterActivate: onAfterActivate
});

I explained all of those properties, except for the alias. The alias would be the route that we register with the HTML 5 history API.

So now we’ll need to make a couple of subtle changes to the activateTemplate function. The first is adding an optional parameter I called soft. The second is:

if (template.container === defaults.container){
    var title = setTitle(template.title);

    if(!soft){
        history.pushState(template.key, title, template.alias);
    }
}

We didn’t change anything else, thus !soft will always be truthy. Each template activation will change the navigation history with the route sugar defined in template.alias.

In order to preserve navigation, since we’re manipulating history with history.pushState we need to handle the popstate event, this encompasses two steps. The first is to handle popstate, so we’ll go ahead and do that:

$(function(){
    $(window).on('popstate', function(e){
        if (e.originalEvent === undefined || e.originalEvent.state === null){
            key = keys[document.location.pathname];
        } else {
            key = e.originalEvent.state;
        }
        activate(key, true);
    });

    $(window).trigger('popstate'); // manual trigger fixes an issue in Firefox.
});

Here we simply take the key from data passed to the state, or from the document.location, and pass that along to activate, with soft = true, meaning we won’t be pushing a new state this time.

The manual trigger fixes an issue in Firefox where it wouldn’t popstate on document load.

The second and last step was to add the soft parameter to activate as well, and to prevent identical state objects to be pushed.

// ...

if(template.container in active) {
    if(active[template.container] === template) {
        if(!template.selfCleanup){
            return;
        }
        soft = true;
    } else {

// ...

And regarding the HTTP 404 status error code won’t really be ever happening in our application. That’s fine, but we do need to alert our users of the fact that a particular endpoint doesn’t match any of the view templates that we can render. For this purpose, I created a very minimal 404 template:

section#not-found-template.template
    h1='Not Found'
    div='Sorry, the page you are looking for does not exist in the Matrix.'

Now I just need to register this template in my engine, like so:

nbrut.tt.add({
    key: '404',
    source: '#not-found-template'
});

And that’s it. Remember there was a fallback to template = templates['404'];, that’s all we’ll ever need to deal with 404 issues.

Coming Up

In the next post I’ll delve into MongoDB, how to pair it with Node, and figuring out how to communicate across all the application layers.

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Comments (1)

Eric Douglas wrote

This one was too abstracted… I really need to come back and reread it more times, but I will moving on!

This blog is really exciting!

=)