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How We Created Our Own Frontend Framework: MarsMan (and Why)

Marina Aísa
· Jan 27 2017

Captain's log, stardate d164.y37/AB

2016 was a really challenging year for MarsBased. Throughout the entire year, we worked on about 16 different projects, and even though I joined as a full-time employee in June, I've been involved in most of them in the design, UX and frontend development phases.

Switching projects isn't always easy, especially when dealing with different clients who have different tech stacks and different libraries in every project, or even very diverse visual guidelines.

Luckily enough, we came up with the idea to standardise the visual elements we're using throughout all our projects and grouped them in a library of our own: MarsMan.

Moving away from Bootstrap

After having successfully completed lots of projects using Bootstrap as the main frontend framework, we found out we spent more time installing it and tweaking to meet our needs than what we saved by using it. While it is really helpful to get some projects - and starting companies - off the ground, it is easy to outgrow Bootstrap once you get more and more complex projects.

Let's list the reasons why we thought it was a good idea to move away from Bootstrap:

  • Bootstrap is good for developers but not for designers. Bootstrap is good to create entire platforms easily with a standard design, but it takes a lot of CSS rewriting if you want to build websites with bespoke designs. Therefore, it is ideal for developers who neither are too skilled in design nor want to spend time making things look excessively cool.
  • Bootstrap comes with too much boilerplate. As it's the case with many frameworks, it is so generic that you end up using a very small portion of its options and features. This is also a problem in small static websites, where you'd rather code the entire thing from scratch, than trimming it down and customising it to fit your needs.
  • Bootstrap evolves very slowly. Another problem of consolidated technologies: when it gets bigger, every change has to be approved and verified. Therefore, the technology doesn't keep up with the latest trends.
  • Bootstrap uses px instead of em. At MarsBased, we use em instead of px since in this unit the font-size of an element is proportional to the font-size of its parent. It allows us to use the typography measures for other purposes like the space before and after a heading or a paragraph, the margins of a logo, etc. Since Bootstrap doesn't behave like this, we have to rewrite many of the units in every project.
  • Bootstrap does not follow BEM. We adopted the BEM methodology a few months ago. Bootstrap doesn't follow it, so we had CSS following different approaches and naming conventions within the same project. We'll talk about BEM later on.

Because of all the aforementioned reasons, we thought that creating our “own Bootstrap” could be a way of being more agile, productive, and happier frontend developers.

However, by no means, I want to make you think that Bootstrap is not a great tool. It indeed is, but it just doesn't cut it for us anymore.

"If you don't like something, change it; if you can't change it, change the way you think about it." ― Mary Engelbreit

In this case, we could change it, so why shouldn't we do it? ;)

What is MarsMan?

MarsMan is an internal project we started in September 2016, consisting in a frontend templating framework with all the visual elements we needed for our web projects. While it doesn't cover 100% of all the possible functionalities and/or screens a project might have, it does contemplate most cases: forms, dropdowns, marketplaces, lists, search boxes, filters, shopping carts, and a long, long list.

We christened it “MarsMan” because we’re building static sites with Middleman, our static site generator of choice. It also sounds like the kind of name David Bowie would've chosen.

The aim of MarsMan is to offer a structured, exhaustive, and professional design to clients who'd rather invest more in features than in the looks of the app. Ideal for projects that do not require a 100% bespoke design: early stage startups, MVPs, proofs of concept, internal apps, etc.

How have we designed it?

When I started the design of MarsMan, I thought through what design paradigm would fit better this project. Such a big project required a very flexible methodology that would make it easy to customise it for our future clients, like editing fonts, colours, and some particular elements to match the client’s branding and visual guidelines.

After contemplating several options, I found Atomic Design to be the best.

Atomic Design is a design process created by product designer Brad Frost that consists in breaking down graphic interfaces and their elements into atoms, molecules, and other structures. By combining all these structures, it's easy to devise coherent visual elements for any given app or website.

This method doesn’t only make the design well-organised, but it also makes it easy for the developer to code it afterwards. Because everything is so detailed and coherent, very little extra information is needed from the designer, thus reducing back-and-forth conversations between the design and development teams, ultimately increasing the company's productivity. Atomic Design actually helped me to improve the working processes of the rest of the MarsBased team.

Let's dive into it: to implement Atomic Design, I created a toolkit containing all the molecules needed to create all the visual elements of the project. You can see it here:

MarsMan Template's Toolkit MarsMan's Toolkit

Afterwards, I designed the final organisms using the molecules from the toolkit:

Edit Profile page in the MarsMan Template Edit Profile Page created from the toolkit

How have we developed it?

After having a good design with a detailed toolkit and components, we needed to code them in a similar method, so that they could be easily reusable.

We opted for the CSS methodology called BEM. BEM is about creating individual CSS elements that can be modified using general variables, but at the same time, they're so loosely coupled that they can be reusable without depending on other components.

To learn more, read about BEM on their website.

A quick summary for other UI/UX designers: “BEM is to CSS, what Symbols is to Sketch”.

How have we applied MarsMan to our projects?

The first project where we used MarsMan was TrustRight. TrustRight is a company that helps people struggling with student loan debt to cut through the red tape and confusion caused by the US federal government's myriad programs.

In this project, we had to transform their desktop application into a webapp project. And since the feature set was very large, we both agreed that our template was a good solution to avoid spending too much on the look & feel of the platform, thus being able to invest it on the feature side.

We adapted MarsMan to fit their corporate identity and we developed all the extra elements MarsMan didn't initially contemplate and the result has been very cool.

This is an example of how MarsMan looks on a real project:

TrustRight project using MarsMan TrustRight project using MarsMan

Conclusion

Now that we have presented MarsMan to our clients, we often get the following question: should we just then use MarsMan for the design and not invest in a bespoke one?

There's no right answer to this question, I'm afraid. For some projects, it will work, by saving some money that you can reinvest in other areas (sales, marketing, other features or hiring) while some others will require a customised design because of the project's very nature.

If you still need to decide, the following considerations can help you:

When should you use MarsMan in your project:

  • You're really tight on either time or budget (or both!).
  • You'd rather invest in having more functionalities than in a bespoke look & feel.
  • You want your site to follow all the best practices. After all, MarsMan is largely inspired by AirBnB's UX.

In short: MarsMan provides a good-looking design, albeit a tad generic. This can be good to minimise the learning curve of your site since users will already be familiar with other popular apps and websites.

When should you use a bespoke design:

  • You really care about UX in your website. No framework can nail what a top designer can do for the UX of a project.
  • You want to innovate with UX with breaking concepts.
  • Your project is so special that no framework has the elements you need.

In short: if you really want to innovate and create bleeding-edge concepts, pages or new forms of interaction, you must really go for tailored designs, like the ones we do at MarsBased! We love challenges. There is nothing that our team can't do.

MarsMan Template Some screens of MarsMan


I hope I have helped you to decide whether to go for a bespoke design or not and that you liked learning about our project!

By the way, we are hiring! If you want to join our frontend development team, make sure you check out our Jobs page!

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