What’s a hackathon in SI like?

The first half of 2017 has been quite a busy year for us. With all the features that’ve been rolling out, fixes to deploy, improvements to discuss, design and implement, it can be hard to organise an event that won’t disrupt everybody’s flow. Until we realize that there is never a “right” time.

Here in Small Improvements, we try to make sure that everyone has time to play around with their ideas. Earlier this year, we even decided to gather up the entire 5-person design team for a 2-day illustration hackathon where we experimented with different illustration techniques and brainstormed ideas on how we can expand our Small Improvements universe even further. It was a good experience having all of the design team members gathered in one room, bursting with ideas and energy and discussions. We learned a lot, not just about the art of illustrating ideas itself (and how challenging it could be), but also about ourselves and the design team member’s strengths and weaknesses as well.

But first, breakfast.

We conducted our company-wide hackathon last August 17-18. At Small Improvements, hackathons are a way for everyone in the company to come together and build something that is somewhat related to the product.

Traditionally, a hackathon starts on a Thursday afternoon and runs until the end of the next day. But this time we made an exception, we decided to run it the entire 2 days with the condition of doing ”normal” work like responding to emails and fixing bugs that were labeled critical.

As with most events in-house that starts in the morning, we started the day with a breakfast followed by a kickoff where everyone can talk a little bit more about their idea. Generally, people are encouraged to write a mini-spec about their ideas at least a few days ahead so that each participant can have an idea of which project they want to work on before the kickoff day. These sub-teams can be a mixture of different teams — doesn’t matter if you’re a combination of the Marketing, Design, or Development team. And of course, going solo is totally acceptable too!

After the kickoff, everybody is free to work on their project however they want, wherever they want.

Presentation day

 

Hangouts, drinks and food compose much of the presentation hour. Each team is required to present a demo or a mockup of the project that they worked on. Ideas ranged from developing an internal tool for tracking where and how budgets are spent to sentiment analysis and even a zen mode for when writing feedback. While not every project will end up in the roadmap, it was still great to see cool and interesting ideas implemented in such a short amount of time!

Key takeaways

  • Having the opportunity to work together across teams is a tremendous help in getting insight and ideas that otherwise developers or designers might not think about.
  • Plan ahead! The last hackathon has been announced almost a month ahead and the exact date has been voted for using Doodle. This allows everyone to have a lot of wiggle room to sort out their schedules and think about the project they want to work on.
  • We’ve realized that people had different perceptions on how / what a hackathon is. And so we learned that we should work on making it clear for everyone while still encourage them to do cool and crazy projects.

Reflections on CSSconf EU 2017 (Berlin)

cssconf-welcome

Recently three of our developers attended the CSSconf 2017 in Berlin. The talks have been inspiring for us and once again we got clear about what a mature language CSS has become by now. The steady addition of new features continue to amaze and the enthusiasm of the community is infectious. The conference itself was well organized (the food was awesome!) and we appreciate that the organizers took so much care about creating a safe and diverse environment for everyone.

In this blog post we reflect on our learnings from the conference and share our experiences on developing efficient CSS at scale.

There are a lot of guidelines on how to write modular JavaScript and tons of books about how to make Java code efficient. But what does good CSS code actually look like? The answer is probably not that much different from other programming languages. The first step towards modular, reliable and reusable CSS code is to perceive CSS as a regular programming language. At CSSconf Ivana Mc Connell puts up the question: “What makes a good CSS developer?”. She points out that CSS still isn’t included as a programming language in the Stack Overflow survey and that there is even a hierarchy in many companies between CSS developers and “real” developers.

“We can always change the hierarchies. CSS is real development – let’s make that a given.”
(Ivana Mc Connell)

There are still developers and managers who think that CSS is just about putting fancy colors and setting some margin here and there. However, CSS has become a powerful tool and new features are continuously added, not to mention the various preprocessors that have become a quasi-standard throughout the last years. Things like grids, animations and filters are first class citizens by now and already wildly supported by browsers.

To showcase the feature richness of CSS, Una Kravets performs a live coding session where she puts up a simple yet fun and interactive browser game just by making use of regular CSS. Mathias Bynens already did something similar at CSSconf EU 2014, where he presented a mock of a shooter game that only consisted of one single line of HTML. The point here is not that CSS should replace JavaScript. On the contrary – while CSS and JavaScript are and always will be different things, it’s interesting to see the borders blurring and how both languages influence each other.

Make it scale, but keep it consistent

At Small Improvements we work on a large single page application. In three feature teams we maintain roughly 40k lines of LESS code. Two of our biggest ongoing challenges are to make our styling consistent and our CSS code modular and reusable.

Maintaining a style guide and establishing a design culture

Especially when multiple teams work on one and the same application there is a certain risk that each team comes up with a slightly different style of implementation. There are numerous examples for this and conducting an interface inventory (as suggested by Brad Frost) can yield surprising results. Achieving consistent styling is even more difficult if the implementation of the frontend is technically not homogeneous. Even though we implement all new frontend features at Small Improvements in React, we still have a lot of Angular code and even some old Wicket pages lingering around. The user doesn’t care about these details, so the question is how to keep track of all the various patterns that we use across the app and provide a seamless design language?

In her talk “Scaffolding CSS at scale”, Sareh Heidari shared an example how to discover and extract visual patterns at the BBC news website. We can confirm that we made good experiences with a similar approach. We recently set out to build a new style guide for our app that allows us to stay aware of all the different patterns we use. This helps us not only to compose new features out of existing components. Instead, the main key for us is not the style guide itself but it is the process around it: having a close eye on everything that’s newly-built and coming together frequently to talk about how to integrate these additions into the bigger picture. We perceive the style guide as a cause for discussion; you could even say that it’s an artless byproduct of our design process.

Project setup and implementation

For us it works best to structure our code base in a domain-driven way. We follow this approach in our entire app and can fully recommend it. For the frontend we decided to use CSS modules (in form of LESS files) that we put right next to our React components. That way the component itself always comes with its own (inward) styling. There are various attempts in the React community for this kind of project layout. (It even became popular to go further by using some sort of inline styling, see Mark Dalgleish’s talk for an overview.) For us CSS Modules worked well since we used LESS previously, which then allowed us for a convenient and gradual migration path.

Glenn Maddern – who heroically stepped in last-minute for Max Stoiber – updated us about the most recent changes in the Styled Components project. But no matter whether you prefer CSS modules or Styled Components, it is crucial to understand the motivation behind these libraries in order to build large scale applications: Glenn Maddern’s talk at ColdFront16 gives a good insight into this way of thinking and why it’s beneficial.

The only thing where we jealously glance over to Styled Components is the ability to parametrize CSS code so easily. Therefore we are looking forward for CSS variables being better supported in browsers, because that would be the native solution to the problem. David Khourshid demonstrates the handover between JavaScript and CSS in his talk “Getting Reactive with CSS”. With this solution the JS-CSS-intersection hassle falls right into place.

Takeaway

We don’t have a catchy conclusion to draw. There is certainly no right or wrong in what approach works best or which library helps most. For us it was nice to see a lot of our current assumptions confirmed, and if we were asked to write down three of them, then it would be these:

  1. CSS is a fully-fledged programming language – for sure! Stay up to date with all new features and take advantage of them once they are commonly supported.
  2. Keep styling and markup closely together. This promotes reusability best. Leverage component interfaces in order to create clear and predictable boundaries.
  3. Talk, talk, and talk frequently about visual patterns to ensure consistency in the long term. Some sort of process or documentation can help here.

The development team here at Small Improvements have done their fair share of conferences in the past (thanks to the individual learning budgets we are offered). It’s awesome now that our design team has grown to the point that we’re also attending designer-developer related conferences such as CSSconf EU. Bring on next year!

Building the Activity Stream. Part 1: Product Design

We recently launched our new Activity Stream. What began as a small idea turned into quite the large engineering undertaking. The results are astonishing, but it was a lot of hard work. In this part we’ll share how the design took shape.

 

Whiteboard and paper drawings

Each larger project at Small Improvements begins with a rough written draft, and a kickoff meeting that involves PM, developers, designers and a customer-team person. User stories are extracted, prioritised and then broken down into manageable MVP plus one or two “expansion releases” so it’s clear they are not part of the original release. Then the product design work starts (and if needed, we’ll conduct  some code exploration too to rule out major obstacles)

We use whiteboards and paper drawings to try out ideas, discuss and iterate quickly. Here are some of the many initial ideas for how to represent complex concepts like our cycles in a changelog:

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Wireframes

Lots of future problems can be avoided by coming up with good quality wireframes. So after the paper scribbles were done, we went to paint proper wireframes. Here are two examples of how we described the overall architecture of the activity stream, then followed by an actual sample wireframe.

wireframe 1.png

wireframe 2.png

 

We don’t take wireframes too seriously of course. Wireframes are a plan, not a committment to the future product, and everything is still up for change.

Also, quite often the real challenge lies in the user flow, not just in screen design. Some flows can be simulated at the whiteboard or by moving paper pieces around, but we typically move to InVision quickly. Using a web-based tool allows us to create actual clickable prototypes, and get insight from other (possibly remote) staff easily.

 

Mockups

A high fidelity image can raise unrealistic expectations (“oh look we’re almost done”) or draw attention to the wrong details (“why are there 20px margin, shouldn’t it be 30px?”). But on the other hand, the more realistic our mockups look like, the more and better feedback we get from outside the core team.

It’s not about pixel perfection at this stage, everything can still get adjusted. But it is about making things feel “real” sooner than later, so that staff feel encouraged to give feedback about the flows, and so that early access customers feel they are actually commenting on something we are serious about. So we quite like our high fidelity mockups!

 

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(The above is just a screenshot, but we typically make mockups clickable so it’s clearer what action takes you where)

Code level prototypes

We prefer to not write lots of “real” code before there has been some agreement on the flows between screens. Yes we’re agile, and yes we can make changes down the track. But starting to code user flows without first sketching them has failed us too often.

So once we start coding the frontend, we have a somewhat good grasp of a feature, and this makes coding quicker, and styling is also more fun when you don’t have to fear everything changes totally next week.

As designers we love to get down and dirty at the UI level too. But it’s not scaleable to be positioning every button ourselves. We invest time teaching design principles to frontend developers, and make everyone follows our living style guide, so we can focus on the advanced stuff, not on placing basic buttons.

 

User testing

Once a feature has been developed to alpha stage, it’s time for user testing. We aim for conducting some some 5 to 10 “successful” user tests for larger features or changes. If user tests show there are major problems in our designs, then we reset the counter, keep adjusting the design, and schedule further user tests.

We prefer a combination of tests. On one hand we like watching experienced customers explore their existing content with new features enabled. On the other hand we like scenario-driven tests where we present users with concrete tasks, using a synthetic demo content setup (so people aren’t afraid to break things). Both have their place, but usertesting is such a complex beast that we’ll blog about it separately. 🙂

 

Launch

When the tests confirm that a feature works, it is time for the polishing phase, and we’ll gradually enable features to our beta program customers. After another round of feedback, answering questions and polishing, it’s time for a wider rollout to clients who didn’t sign up for the beta. Now proper documentation needs to be written, blogged, and announced in-app using Intercom or home-made hints.

And then it’s time to roll out for real and celebrate!

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Hack It, Ship It!

Small Improvements conducts Hackathons every few months which usually involves two days of hacking on an experimental project. Hacking doesn’t imply that it’s a “developers-only” affair either; other departments at Small Improvements like Customer Success and Marketing also get a chance to get experimental too. Hackathons usually give us a chance to really get creative about novel concepts and ideas for the product and company. It is about coming together as people to grow as a team – something that we at Small Improvements value as an important part of internal culture.

From Hackathon to Ship It Week

Being creative with innovative ideas is great, but how would we actually Ship It? We introduced the Ship It Week as new concept to extend our occasional Hackathons from 2 days of hacking to 5 days more serious hacking! In the first two days we had our regular experimental Hackathon, but afterwards had to decide which projects were feasible to “ship” until the end of the week. In the context of a feature in the Small Improvements feature, ship would mean: going live for customers!

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More than just slinging code

I like to think of myself as a coder of convenience. I often tell myself this work is just a means to an end – I am only coding till I can afford to spend the rest of my days lying in a hammock, drinking out of a coconut. But that’s not really true. If it were, I would be pursuing elite consulting gigs, or jumping from start-up to start-up on the hunt for unicorn stock options. Instead, after 15 years in the industry, I am working at a small, customer-focused company that turns a respectable profit building unpretentious B2B software.

The other day the owner, Per, asked me why I chose to apply for a job at Small Improvements. There were several reasons – not least of which was actually being able to talk about this sort of thing with my CEO – but I think my main motivation was because I wanted to help people again.

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Creating a SI Style Guide

After a significant project involving making Small Improvements responsive, we came up with some UI ‘rules’ that we in the design team or (‘UI Taskforce’) agreed upon. The longer we worked on this refactoring and ‘cleaning up’ of the app’s style, the more we realised the importance of (finally) having a Style Guide.

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The UI Taskforce! Adrienne, Kristof, Kolja and Timur. (I took the photo).

At Small Improvements, we often have the front end developers implementing UIs faster than we (the design team) can keep up, so it’s important that they can access this guide.

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SI Process Hacks – The Internal Product Changelog

Development is hard. But communication is even harder – especially across departments and continents. Our SI Process Hacks series will highlight a few simple hacks  we wish we had known right from the start!

The problem

We deploy many times a day –  bugfixes, feature improvements, new options, changes in user flows etc. As a developer, you know when you committed, and you can see your commit go live in real-time:

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But as the developer on another subteam, or especially as a non-developer, git-hashes are not really your preferred way of looking at things. It’s tricky to know when what change goes live on what day. Knowledge of changes is crucial, you don’t want to demo the product to a potential client and get caught off guard by that new button on a core screen.

We tried using Slack to keep people in the loop, we considered using a special Trello board, or including even tiny changes into our Release Notes. But everything was just complicated and never quite flexible either.

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