Designers vs. Developers, Declaration vs. Procedure

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This post summarizes a complaint about JSF that I hear from time to time:

... traditional page design workflow isn't as straight-forward with JSF. With action-based web frameworks, it was rather easy for a HTML designer with some technical acumen to directly edit JSPs to implement a look and feel. Not so with JSF -- you're farther away from the final HTML. Its the components you include on the page that generate DIV tags and so forth. Having accrued 10+ years experience working with HTML, I find this the most frustrating aspect of JSF. We've been given a series of HTML Mockups from a design firm, and integrating has proved to be very challenging. I wonder if JSF merely shifts work efforts from HTML editing to Component customization.

Well, it may be frustrating at first, but on balance I would argue that it is a /good thing/ that your web designer is not editing HTML directly.

The reason is that you should not be implementing look and feel by directly editing HTML. If you're doing that, then you're working around the whole architecture of HTML. What you should be doing instead is adding CSS selectors to your semantic HTML content, and applying your layout, look and feel using CSS. The architecturally correct separation of responsibilities is:

  • Developers produce /semantic content/
  • Designers produce /stylesheets/

Now, most JSF component libraries (and most Ajax libraries in general) kinda muddy the water here by providing widgets that look pretty out of the box, and can be skinned according to some built-in theme facility. Well, this is an important marketing feature for something like RichFaces - users have an expectation that widgets will look pretty without customization - but for serious development I think it tends to lead people down the wrong path. That's why one of my first feature requests for RichFaces was a plain theme that looks /intentionally/ ugly, and is easy to style using CSS.

In my opinion, there is third, under-appreciated, attribute of the HTML architecture:

  • Both content and style are expressed /declaratively/

And, in my view, this is essential for understandability of the code.

Let's consider good 'ol <h:dataTable>:

<h:dataTable value="#{products}" var="prod">
      <f:facet name="header">SKU</f:facet>

This code fits the semantic content description perfectly. It's a highly declarative specification that:

  1. there is a table, where each row is a product
  2. with a column that has a header and some content in each cell

I can't really imagine a nicer way to express this. Consider the traditional JSP/JSTL type approach:

   <c:forEach items="${products}" var="prod">
            <c:out value="${prod.sku}"/>

This is a significantly more complex implementation:

  • there are 5 levels of nesting, compared to 3
  • it's difficult to correlate the column header name with the content, except by counting <th>s and <td>s

Even worse, it features an /iterator/, thus mixing two completely different language paradigms (declarative vs. procedural) in a totally unsatisfying way.

On the other hand, it doesn't hide the bare HTML tags from us. If we wanted to edit the JSP template to add presentational concerns, it's easy enough. Unfortunately, once we start adding presentation concerns to our HTML, the HTML code becomes /much/ less reusable. What we should be doing instead is adding CSS selectors.

And, of course, all well-written JSF components make this super-easy:

<h:dataTable value="#{products}" 
          syleClass="table products">
      <f:facet name="header">SKU</f:facet>

Now our designer can concentrate upon developing declarative CSS stylesheets to target the selectors we have provided, and we will be free to make all kinds of changes to the semantic HTML without affecting the design (for example, we could use some fancy table control such as <rich:table> that provides lazy fetching of data from the server when the scrollbar is dragged, along with sortable, resizable columns and row selection. All without a line of JavaScript.

The declarative, semantic style of user interface development really starts to show its potential when we consider databinding. In a traditional UI library, tree views are a pain. We need to write messy Java code to adapt our application's model to something that the tree widget can comprehend. In RichFaces, we simply declare how the tree structure maps to the /structure/ of our object model. No Java code required:


    <rich:recursiveTreeNodesAdaptor roots="#{root}" 
        <rich:treeNodesAdaptor nodes="#{dir.files}" 

Now just try to do that in some other Web framework! :-)

Probably, you can now guess why I'm going against the grain by sticking up for JSF when some folks are jumping on bandwagons like GWT or Wicket. These technologies attempt to specify a naturally hierarchical artefact using sequential code. Personally, I just don't get that. I'm deeply interested in technologies like Hibernate, JPA, Seam, Web Beans, EJB3, jBPM which reformulate what used to be programmatic concerns in a declarative mode. That there should be a movement /away/ from declarative programming in the one field where it is /most/ natural (user interface) is counter-intuitive to me.

Actually, the pure-declarative nature of JSF templates is a pretty unique feature of JSF. Facelets is the first templating language I've ever seen that doesn't need iterators and conditionals. JSP, Velocity, FreeMarker, RHTML, etc, all encourage the mixing of logic and content. Facelets/JSF let you express dynamic content every bit as declaratively as HTML or DocBook express static content. (Jacob Hookom is one of the smartest guys in Java, in case you missed it.)

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