Why we don't use OOCSS (but we should)

May 25, 2013 Charles Hansen

I recently had the opportunity to pair with Nicole Sullivan (of OOCSS fame) for a few days on my current project. I learned as much as I could about css components in the three days available and then rebuilt the most painful part of our UI with components over the next week. I learned two broad things from this experience. First, css components are amazing. I didn’t realize how much pain I had in css until I saw how much easier it was with components. We should definitely use them. Second, css components feel weird in the normal web development world. There are good reasons we haven’t used them at Pivotal. It just turns out the reasons for not using them aren’t good enough.

I may write another post on why OOCSS is so amazing, but I think the more interesting post are the reasons to resist OOCSS. Hopefully someone just trying it out will be pre-warned about these pain points and will be able to make a smoother transition.

1. HTML and CSS are just not as important as the server code or javascript for a web developer. I spend most of my time in ruby or javascript and am always looking for ways to make coding those things more sustainable. I don’t spend very much time in HTML or CSS, so there isn’t the same drive to improve them. I need big wins in CSS coding to justify changing anything. Luckily, OOCSS fits the bill.

2. You can’t test css. Agile development relies heavily on the ability to refactor, which relies heavily on test coverage. Say you had a page with many buttons, but the client only tells you about a new one every week. With each new button, you add some html and css, and then some javascript click handlers. After enough buttons, you refactor the javascript to reflect your new understanding of the page. You can do this safely with enough test coverage, but how do you refactor the html/css without breaking something? A style guide goes a long way here, but it’s not the same as test coverage. In my refactor, I just had to spend the time comparing the look of the refactored css with old versions. Mildly painful, but still worth it.

3. The design patterns of rails are simply different than OOCSS. If I want a page with a list of users, I will make a users_controller.rb with an index method. I will make a user_list.js file for client interaction (assuming it is complicated enough to need one). I also want to make a user_list.css file. Unfortunately, almost anything I would put in the user_list.css file is bad for OOCSS. I need a lists css file which doesn’t know anything about users. In fact, none of my css files should know anything about users if I can avoid it. This isn’t hard to do once you realize it is important, but it never occurred to me until Nicole pointed it out.

4. Javasript class names are usually semantic. OOCSS class names are not. They should not depend on the content in them, and might have absolutely nothing to do with the underlying business logic If I have a list of users in my page, I naturally want to make a ul with a class like “user_list”. In OOCSS most of the list styling for a user list should come from some generic class like ‘list_vertical’. You don’t want the ‘user_list’ class unless the javascript needs it. This felt unnatural for a few days, but I eventually got used to it.

5. There is a lot of extra HTML in the early stages of an OOCSS refactor. I ended up creating extra uls and divs in the weirdest spots just to get things to layout correctly. And then there are all the extra classes. You aren’t supposed to re-use javascript selectors in css, so you need to write new selectors for that. You also shouldn’t use parent classes in your selector, so html that used to look like

<div class="error">
    Something went wrong!
    <button>Try again</button>

.error { background-color: red; }
.error button { color: white; }
now needs to look like

<div class="error">
    Something went wrong!
    <button class=button_error">Try again</button>

.error {background-color: red;}
.button_error {color: white;}

You still need the “error” class to style the error div so the “button_error” class is just thrown on top. The whole situation is made worse by html that is full of copy-paste. In my refactor, there was a particular button type that was created over 100 times in our html and I wanted to add an OOCSS class to it. We pulled it into a partial to solve the problem, but too much of this and it starts to feel like we need to refactor our html templating before we can refactor OOCSS. I’ve been assured that a full OOCSS refactor actually results in 20-50% less html depending on the project. The ‘extra html’ phase is only when you have added the OOCSS html but haven’t added enough that you can remove your old html scaffolding. Even during this phase, the extra html isn’t so bad because at least you have a lot less css.

6. Components only work if you see patterns in layout that repeat themselves. Many of the components I am now using weren’t obvious to me as patterns worth extracting. I didn’t start seeing them in the site until I became familiar with the common OOCSS components. You do actually have to put effort into this. The other failure mode here is if your website just doesn’t have repeatable patterns due to inconsistent design. Now you need to add convincing your client to streamline the design to your list of tasks. On the plus side, making css components is a very good way to show your client the inconsistencies in the design and should result in a better site.

None of the difficulties listed above are deal-breakers, but they do add up to a lot of headwinds in moving to OOCSS. Even with those headwinds, the transition has already been an easy win for my current project and I believe most sites would find the same thing.

About the Author


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