Macaw is just what I wanted

I get inspired when I can visually tinker with experience design. This is the reason that got my attenion and I adopted it almost immediately. I finally found a product that allows me to do that, from, a recently launched rapid web UI prototyping tool. It’s got its warts, being brand new, but I like it and I expect it to do well.

I get inspired when I can visually tinker with experience design. This is the reason that got my attenion and I adopted it almost immediately.

Macaw user interface
blank canvas in Macaw

I hailed Twitter Bootstrap when it was launched. It helped me and many others  with UI prototype work. Some seemed to prefer deploying Bootstrap default experience with little change. I don’t like that much. I would often customise the look & feel to make it a bit proprietary. Over time I came to realise that I didn’t particularly enjoy tweaking and tuning the myriad features exposed through the LESS assets. There is nothing wrong or limited with Bootstrap per se. Web browser development tools are also a good help for quickly trying out UI ideas. There are many online sites such as codepen that help you experiment with snippets and small features. These are all fine but, I just wasn’t getting inspired by any of it. What these tools lacked – that would get me excited – was the ability to just draw my idea of an entire page as I envision it, tinker only with the drawing, and then immediately get the code behind without resorting to any extra artifices. There is an emerging bunch of tools that allow you do that in a cost effective manner.

I discovered that my way of tinkering with web design worked better if I could do it visually. As I examine visual elements I get more ideas and I can iterate quicker. Going back and forth to the LESS source files and tuning design was too slow to entice me. I am not a designer by education so I make lots and lots of tweaking before I like something. As a kid I used to love drawing things. I would typically start by drawing a line or some randomly curved shape, then as I added to that some kind of shape would start to emerge and I would finalise my drawing that way. If I ended up drawing a horse or a house that was usually not even in my mind when I started. That was my way of playing with pen and pencil. It seems that is also how I can enjoy doing UI work.

For a long time I relied on Omnigraffle, not really a web design tool, and Pixelmator, also not a real UI web design tool. I’ve used Adobe FireWorks on and off for years. FireWorks is a nice tool but it never got me excited much. It seemed that I couldn’t find any product out there that I would want to stick to. That changed recently.

There’s a new product that allows you to visually design what you want, then get a baseline html and css code that embodies that. It’s called Macaw. I saw a brief video announcing its features and immediately decided to buy a license when it shipped. I got a copy at the beginning of this month, started using it, and it felt right away that this was how I always wanted to work with web design.

Aside from the immediate feedback, one benefit I particularly appreciate with Macaw is that the authoring assistants are intuitive and help you just the right way. As a non-negligeable bonus it generates a minimal base code that can be directly fed into an application design. Here are two radically different design I made with it.

macaw - design prototyping example
macaw – design prototyping example
Web UI Prototyping with Macaw
Web UI Prototyping with Macaw

I create these artefacts just like I would in Omnigraffle, however the whole experience of manipulating the elements fits perfectly with the job: desiging a web front-end. Once done, the code that Macaw generates is clean and minimal, it does link to jQuery though. So, I could just take the code I get from this and embed it in the application code. This approach is more to the point, and more efficient than say using a free html template downloaded from the web.

macaw generated css
macaw generated css
macaw generated source files
macaw generated source files

Before Macaw I tried several products of which many are online solutions. I won’t list them since this isn’t really a posting on product comparison. While lots of nice experiences are available I was often disappointed with the code that got generated. The problem I expect to solve with these tools is to get started with a clean slate and be able to repurpose code with minimal effort. This means that I didn’t want any dependencies in the code and that seemed almost impossible to achieve. For this reason I couldn’t settle for anything in particular and kept on to a traditional model where the UI design assets were fairly remote from the code produced to implement it. I don’t need to do that anymore, I can rely on Macaw to visually tinker with prototype designs.

Of course when it comes to serious web crafting like making animations or complex interactions Macaw wouldn’t fit the bill. Webflow for example seems to be another nice one, particularly suited to animation rich UIs. The produced code embeds relatively proprietary JavaScript code. And the business model seemed to be favourable to repeat uses or even hosted solutions. For my particular needs I saw these as compromises I didn’t really want. And honestly I would just hire a professional designer if the experience is complex or that it needs to be very sophisticated. I am an IS&T architect who believe in all-round craftsmanship. I want to deliver the whole solution. If it needs to look spiffy and flashy then I call out to professional designers.

Having used the product for a little while now, I am convinced that Macaw is the tool that I was missing so far. I can now deliver complete end-to-end experiences to clients with the tools that I am comfortable with.

Django CMS is the simplest and most elegant Web CMS I’ve seen lately

Recently I have deep-dive compared a lot of web content management (CMS) products. I’ve found that Django CMS is the simplest and most elegant way of authoring semantic HTML content on the web.

Recently I have evaluated a lot of web content management solutions, all of them open source, almost exclusively on Unix like systems, I haven’t seen anything as simple and elegant as Django CMS. I took it for a spin, it’s polished, really designed to solve fast turn-around web publishing needs. It does that brilliantly, no question about that. I particularly like the way they make all the authoring tools and widgets disappear when not in use, so that you are always looking at your content exactly as it will appear when  published.

There is one thing, in a lot of cases, to truly appreciate any piece of work, one must have a practical understanding of the challenges involved in making it. This is also true for software. Content management, web content management isn’t a sexy topic. However, without such systems it would be tedious to maintain an online  presence, difficult to consume a lot of the content produced daily by legions of people.

I was just going to use one of the web CMS products I’ve known for a long time, to power one of my web sites. In the process, I realised that I have not done any proper re-evaluation of the products available for a while. I wanted to try that first before settling on something. I thought perhaps I should go open minded about it, include a broad selection of products. As time is precious, I decided to focus on Unix/Linux based solutions for now, because that is also my target deployment platform.

For my purpose I went back to implementing a few other web CMS products, namely: Zotonic (Erlang based), Liferay Portal (JCR), Magnolia (JCR), dotCMS (JCR), several static publishing systems such as Pelican (Python), Jekyll and Octopress (Ruby), and of course WordPress (PHP, which powers this blog). Django CMS best all these in terms of simplicity and its focus on making semantic HTML content authoring a bliss. To be fair, it’s hard to compare these products I just mentioned since each actually aim to cover a breadth of needs that might be going well beyond web CMS (portal for example). But I had narrowed my scope down to the authoring and publishing processes only, web CMS functionality alone, that makes it possible to come up with a fairly reasonable comparison.

I am not yet done evaluating web content management systems, I still have on my to-do list (an innovative Content Repository As A Service) and a couple of .NET based web CMS.

More to come on this topic sometime later. I probably have enough material to publish a small document on this subject. We’ll see if/when I get to that. But for now, I definitely maintain that Django CMS is the most polished solution for folks looking for a simple and attractive web CMS software.

With 8, Java is distancing itself from the ‘new Cobol’

Java 8 has introduced a lot of welcome improvements, justifying that I take back my earlier statement that it was ‘the new Cobol’, but I see there is room for improvement.

It is time to amend a post I made a while back, where I supported the idea that Java was the new Cobol. At that time I had given up any hope to see a decent modernisation of the language in a foreseeable future. That future is here and Java has been modernised.

If you look at Oracle’s site, a few points stick out:

  1. Lambda Expressions: this improves some of the building blocks considerably.
  2. Nashorn and Javascript: this is a nod to the success of NodeJS

To me, those two points justify a new blog post to adjust my earlier statement. I still see opportunities for improvement in the syntax itself, take the following example (from the same Oracle article linked above):

Set artists =
            .filter(album -> album.getTracks().size() < 8)
            .map(album -> album.getArtist())

Wouldn’t this read better in the following way?

Set artists =
        albums ->
                filter tracks.size < 8 
                map artist Set

Notice a lot of the unnecessary characters removed, because the compiler would be able to infer them. This isn't far off from the language's current standard, yet it could have dramatically improved the code readability. I know, there's a huge legacy to cater for and language design requires serious work. This type of simplification wasn't out of reach, it is what you typically see in the attractive programming languages like Haskell, OCaml and others.

So, Java 8 has introduced a lot of welcome improvements, justifying that I take back my earlier statement that it was 'the new Cobol', but I see there is room for improvement.