Front End North 2014

Three of our developers share their insights from the recent Front End North conference:

“After getting over the initial horror of having to get on the same tram I get into work all week on a Saturday morning, I was actually quite excited about Front End North. I’ve not been to a conference for a while and the prospect of a local one and meeting local talent was quite appealing.

There were a variety of talks throughout the day, and I found that it was a good mix of hints and tips, technical approaches and methodologies.

About five years ago, we invited someone from the RNIB to come into the Code office and to talk to us about accessibility and screen readers, and what it was like for a person with visual impairments to actually use the web. A lot has changed since then, especially the W3C Recommendations on accessibility, plus WAI-ARIA 1.0 pas published this year, so it was great to hear Edd Sowden from talk about some of their latest research and implementation of this.

The main two things I took away from Edd’s talk were 1) all Mac OS and iOS systems have a screen reader built in (to activate, on a Mac, press CMD+F5), and 2) the importance of using aria-live sensibly; don’t put the tag around everything, especially search results or news listing pages. For more info around this, you can take a look at Edd’s slides from the day.

Another of my favourite talks was the oddly titled ‘Dynamic Static Site Strategies’. Although it turned out that the title was somewhat contradictory, as speaker Phil Hawswork went on to explain that not every bit of content needs to be built and stored in a CMS.

Phil continued on his quest to open our minds to alternative approaches to building sites and shared with us a variety of tools to help us build static sites, some of which I have used already (like Jekyll), and some which I haven’t.

One thing that interested me was the approach Phil’s company took with a relatively large client, Google. They developed a site for Google Developer Relations, where all the content for the site was actually stored on github. This proved to me that, shown the right solution for the job, even the largest of clients might be prepared to try something different.”

Branny, Head of Front End Development

“My main take outs from this excellent new conference revolved around workflow, reusability and simplicity. In my opinion, as a modern front end developer, all three are important things to prioritise.

Simon Owen gave a very thorough presentation on workflow. He touched on things from Grunt/Gulp, all the way through to dot files. Some you may use, others not, but the point of Simon’s talk was that you should use tools which you like and which will ultimately benefit you.

Workflow is a very subjective topic. Some people claim that there are too many tools in the way of creating good markup; others argue that these tools take some of the ‘donkey work’ out of the mundane tasks and actually free you up to ensure that you are doing the basics well.

Here at Code, we’re definitely fans of a good workflow setup and have invested wisely to ensure that we have a solid setup across both existing sites and new builds. After all, anything that helps improve efficiency benefits everyone.

As a Dev team we hear lots of new technology mentioned on a pretty much daily basis. Some we choose to investigate immediately, and others (generally the newer, less mature ones) we pop on our tech radar for us to revisit later on — so Phil Hawksworth’s talk on Dynamic Static Sites gave us plenty to think about.

The talk centred around using technologies such as ‘Jekyll’ or ‘Middleman’ (though there are many, many more than just these two mentioned) to help generate your sites from static files, essentially doing away with the need for a CMS — which on small scale sites could be potentially very useful.

Another hot topic is around code reusability. Why would you want to keep writing the same thing, over and over? Simply put, you’d be crazy to do this — but it’s something that we consistently do as an industry!

Shaun Bent from the BBC Sport team gave us a fascinating overview on how they are looking at creating GEL (their Global Experience Language) components to help speed up development across the business and also allow for a higher degree of consistency both with the actual implementation as well as the aesthetics when implemented.”

Gibbo, Senior Front End Developer

“Quite a few of the talks at this year’s Front End North conference focussed on workflow, which is a key issue in front end development.

Simon Owen spoke about the various tools he uses in order to save time when developing websites. He mentioned a few widely used tools such as SASS and Grunt, but he also spoke about several that I hadn’t heard of before including Spectacle, an app that allowed a user to create shortcuts to resize windows when viewing websites in mobile, tablet and desktop.

Edd Sowden, who talked about building an accessible website, was another of my favourite speakers. He worked on the website which obviously had to be useable by everyone, so it had to work with screen readers.

I haven’t really thought about listening to a screen reader when creating a website before, but it’s actually an effective way to highlight how well HTML has been written.

He talked us through the process of creating a search feature for the website. Along the way, he ran into various problems such as the screen reader attempting to read out the entire list of search results, which can run to hundreds of entries. So he tweaked the screen reader function to only read out the first three results, and then the user could use a keyboard to navigate the rest.

HTML tags also had to be considered; for example, if something was not a list then it should not have a list tag because that would mean the screen reader would identify that component as a list to the user which would be misleading.”

Matthew, Apprentice Front End Developer