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in Ankur Mishra

OVER ENGINEERING

The days of pure HTML, CSS and Javascript are over. Now we must learn CSS pre-processors and frameworks, multiple Javascript libraries (usually based on jQuery) HTML templating engines based in Javascript, task runners such as grunt and gulp, etc. With all of these tools available, and becoming an ‘industry standard’, it’s easy to misuse them and make a real mess of your website coding.

The reality is, you don’t need any add-on technologies. You can always create websites with highly organised, easily maintainable code, even when using the base technologies.

Modern web development often involves over-engineering. By this, I mean that too much time is spent on setting things up, writing and configuring tools and finding ‘smart’ ways of doing things instead of just doing what needs to be done in a logical manner.

CSS Preprocessors

Nesting

We all know the rule that selectors shouldn’t be nested more than 4 levels deep. However, I disagree with this, as I find that nesting selectors at all will make the code less readable. It’s easy to scan code in a vertical manner, but when my eyes need to also scan horizontally, it makes scanning much less efficient.

If I am looking through a style sheet and I find a class nested a few levels deep, I need to know the parent selectors to understand how the class is being applied. I need to scroll up to see the parent selector, then scroll up again to see its parent selector, then again. It’s not immediately obvious or straight-forward how it will be applied, I need to scan entire blocks of code to understand one line. It’s not a problem if the blocks are small, but there are usually quite a few child selectors under the parent block.

What I often see is a top-level class being used like a namespace. While it may seem neat to organise code this way, it takes more time and effort to understand it. It doesn’t add anything to the code organisation that you couldn’t do with a few line-breaks or comments. The only benefit is reduction of selector repetition. If organising CSS like programming code was that important, we would have adopted JSS instead of CSS.

I prefer to only use nesting for states and, sometimes, pseudo elements.

Media Queries

Another issue I sometimes come across is the use of multiple repeated media queries. Should each selector have its own media query? What about when they’re nested? It can become a bit messy and hard to see the big picture if so much functionality is separated into multiple super small media queries.

I prefer to use a set of media queries per ‘module’ or ‘feature’, so I don’t have a million media queries and yet I also don’t have one big monolithic set of media queries at the end of the file.

Useless complexity

One of the worst examples of investing time into making something that is often unnecessary, useless or even detrimental, would be the idea of wrapping media queries in pre-processor functions or mixins. I can understand the desire to use this when you have a lot of very complex media queries, used often. However, in most cases it’s just not necessary. You will see a line of code like this:

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@include respond-to($medium) { }

What exactly does this do? It’s media query related, but you will need to go looking for the definition of $medium to know if it is just a pixel value, a query or a key relating to a keymap. Either way, you need to find the query text, the associated pixel values, how to use this function and what options are already available.

You will need to read and understand the definition of the function to see how it implements these variables. Does it use min-width or max-width as a default? Does it have default functionality?

What benefits does this function hold over a set of variables? You don’t need to type the word ‘@media’ anymore, instead you need to write ‘respond-to’. This is replacing a universally understood piece of fundamental CSS with a lesser-known custom implementation.

It’s always interesting to see what you can do with the tools available and how far you can go. However, we are replacing a straight forward set of readable statements with a slightly more cryptic line of code that needs to be investigated and understood by a programmer.

The benefit of this technique relies largely on how complex your media queries are, and how often your media queries are used. For sites that use simple media queries, storing the pixel value in a variable will be just as effective. For slightly more complex queries, you can store the entire query in a variable.

The creator of this technique warns his readers about finding a balance and picking the right tool for the job. I’ve seen this technique used in a way that is detrimental to the project many times.

Before using this technique, you need to consider if it’s the right thing to use for your project. Consider your development environment, project size, tooling and style of coding. Don’t just use this because it’s ‘good / standard practice’. Use it only if it suits your project.

Javascript

Libraries

When you want to read a book, you go to the library and borrow one. However, common practice with Javascript is to borrow the whole library just to read one book. Often, libraries like Bootstrap are included and used just for one feature. One feature that you could write in three lines of code. It’s important to justify the inclusion of an entire library before you do so.

Insane code

A previous company that I used to work for, had outsourced a project to an overseas company. One feature of the website was a little call to action button that would stick to the top right of the screen when the user scrolled past a certain point.

The developers had implemented this by using a collision detection system about a page long. It detected when any part of the element collided with the banner above it, so they knew when to remove the fixed position if the user was scrolling upwards. It was probably ripped from some game engine. I’m surprised they didn’t go one further and program some sort of self-learning AI to achieve the same task.

How many lines of code would it take you to implement that functionality?

Lack of programming knowledge

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If (I == true)
 {
     I = false
 } else if (I == false) {
     I = true
 }

Actual code. From a teacher in a web development course. This was back in 2008. It’s memorable, but not in a good way.

This is not as common nowadays as most people know about the ‘not’ operator, but I have seen people implement code to replicate the functionality of the ‘modulus’ operator.

It’s important to know the features of the languages you use.

Conclusion

There are many motivations to complicate your code. To improve maintainability, improve functionality, boredom, being a smartypants, to annoy people for fun etc. However, keep in mind that in a year’s time, you may be the one working with your own code, cursing the developer who made this mess, only to find out that it was you who screwed you over. Yes, I’ve been in that situation, which is how I know. It’s also why I do things simpler and, for the lack of a better term, slightly more old-school than most people when possible.

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