Dominik Serafin
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Making Enboard — A Case Study

January 2017 Update
This article is now 2+ years old. It sometimes showcases some naiveness and outdated techniques. My web development experience has grown since then and my tech stack changed in most parts.

If you want to know how to create application such as Enboard or you're interested in my workflow then you should read this.

This article consists of two parts. First is about design and second is about technical matters. If you aren't interested in design then just skip that part.

I want to point out that it's my first ever written article and it won't be perfect (English is my second language) and not as complete as I would like it to be.


History and Idea

After I've started my web design adventure I have amassed a big number of related bookmarks with articles, fonts, services, etc. Organizing everything and accessing it with a browser default bookmarks manager was getting really tiring so I've looked into some bookmark managing services like Delicious etc. but unfortunately nothing cut it for me.

That's when I've got an idea to create a simple static page hosted on GitHub where I could keep all my bookmarks organized through categories in a way I liked to. It was named DopeLists.com and at the beginning it only consisted of web design links. Further down the road I've added other sections like front-end, after format and general websites.

A couple months later I've redesigned and refactored it a bit because of bad markup decisions and time-wasting way of adding new links. Name was also changed to Beaqn.in.

The website got a bit popular, shared many times and received good amount of e-mails with positive feedback and suggestions.

Among the user feedback there were many questions if Beaqn source code could be used for their own lists. That's how I've got an idea to create such web app where people could do exactly that, but without messing in code.


Board UX

Convincing to Sign Up

To convince users who haven't already registered I've included a CTA button in top bar. It lets them know that they can also create such board for free.

Other method is the faux follow button. It acts as a information that boards can be followed. When clicked by registered users it works normally, but when clicked by unregistered users it opens a sign-up modal.

Loosely in the spirit of a separation of concerns — there are two sections inside board header. First one is mostly informational with things like board title, description, number of followers, etc. Second one contains options associated with that board.

Only exception is the follow button which I've included right after the board title because I wanted it to be more visible and used more often than the other options.

Layout

To keep things simple and clean, board is reduced to only essentials — items with optional hover descriptions organized through categories.

That results in a glanceable and optimally packed content that can be quickly explored and accessed by users.

Content Edition

Adding new links is almost effortless, they have dynamically auto-filled titles and descriptions scraped from websites titles and descriptions.

Drag and drop interface lets board owners to easily edit placement of categories and items.

Every board have a search functionality. It basically works like a browser find feature (this little thing activated with CMD+F) but with one difference — boxes that don't match search results are hidden.

Suggestions

Everyone can make suggestions to public boards. Boards owners are notified when suggestion is sent and then can review and delete them. Suggestions are also automatically marked for read and unread.

Changelog

Items addition, modification or deletion gets logged in the changelog that can be seen by anyone with board access.

Different types of actions have different icons and are color coded for quicker visual scanning. Useful when there's lots of them.

URL Design

Boards are using top level directory after domain name because I wanted them to be memorable and easily accessible.

Every new board comes with a 6-character long unique alphanumeric string. The owners can add another custom slug which is not taken by another board and not used by other restricted Enboard URLs.

That way board creation is faster and people who don't need specific board aliases (e.g. in private boards) aren't forced to take names that could be used by other users.


Technology & Development

Server Set-Up

All the application code, static files and PostgreSQL databases are hosted on a Ubuntu 14.04 Linode VPS.

For web server I've chosen Nginx because it was easier to configure, better suited for Django applications and overall more faster than Apache (basing on my research). It serves two purposes. First is a proxy to a Gunicorn which executes Enboard application. Second is a server for static files.

Upstart is automatically stopping or starting Enboard application on system events like boot-ups or crashes.

In addition I'm using CloudFlare, which is basically a plug-and-play CDN, cache, security protection and some other things. It also lets visitor know when the website is down.

Deployment

I was working on Enboard all by myself and I wanted to have fast deployment times since I knew I'll reiterate and update it a couple times a week. I've opted for a simple GIT deployment where I push local changes to BitBucket repository and pull them from Linode server.

My usual deployment flow looked like this:

  1. Update code and merge GIT branches.
  2. Change static files versions using GET ?v= parameter at the end of files links so that 3. returning users will get fresh styles and scripts.
  3. git push from local development set-up.
  4. git pull inside server.
  5. Database migration (optional).
  6. Static files collect (optional).
  7. CloudFlare cache clear (optional).
  8. Application restart.

Front-End Structure & Builds

My CSS preprocessor of choice is the Sass. Its import feature let me to have modular stylesheets structure based on BEM methodology and loosely on SMACSS. Sass other features like mixins, variables and logic operators also came in handy.

In addition I've used Autoprefixer postprocessor — that way I didn't have to worry about manually adding browser vendor prefixes like -webkit- or -ms-.

All the CSS and JavaScript are watched, built and minified using Gulp.

Board Themes

Every board can be customized with 25 themes. They are implemented with the help of Sass mixin and icon fonts features.

This lets me to quckly add new themes and easily change whole board theme using only one class in html that overwrites colors of specified elements.


Performance Optimizations

From the beginning I've wanted to make Enboard very fast. I've implemented couple of techniques that improved real and perceived load times.

"Speed is the most important feature. If your application is slow, people won’t use it."

All relevant file extensions are cached and gzip compressed using Nginx and HTML pages are minified using Django bult-in filter.

Stylesheets and scripts are concatenated and minified using Gulp build into 3 files to reduce network requests — global stylesheet, dependency scripts and scripts controlling the application.

Speeding Up Boards Perceived Loading Times

Bigger boards had a very long server response times because they contained a lot of items with many database relationships.

I've solved that issue by getting items using AJAX after initial page load. While it didn't solve the response time issues, it made the first request for website look a lot faster.

To take things a step further I've also deferred other loadings like board creator and changelog.

Making Fonts Lazy & Using Icon Fonts

To fight something called FOIT (flash of invisible text) I've plugged in a neat script called Font Observer that — as the name suggests — is observing font load requests and returns callbacks that make possible to apply custom font only after it's loaded.

Really useful, especially on smartphones where font loads aren't that snappy like on desktops.

While we are speaking about fonts, we may also speak about icon fonts. I've used selected entypo+ icons packaged as a font. This resulted in the only one ~13kb request for all of the icons and because they are vector based, they look crisp on high-density displays and also let me to easily customize their color and other properties.

Reducing Network Requests with Share Buttons

To miminize page load speeds, especially on smartphones I didn't used any external sharing widgets. They are really big performance hogs with their bloated scripts and iframes.

I've gone with more lightweight solution. Custom sharing buttons that open social networks default sharing dialog.

For displaying cumulative share numbers I've used custom back-end script that counts shares every 6 hours using selected APIs of social networks. The final share number is updated in database only when it's larger than preceding number.


Analytics & User Feedback

For tracking traffic and other stats I'm just using the ol' plain Google Analytics.

For tracking user bahavior and gathering feedback I'm using HotJar. It's a really useful tool that I could describe as a "swiss knife" of analytics.

On Enboard; click heatmaps and screen recordings were used to detect and solve usabilty issues along with polls and surveys to gather feedback.


Things That Should've Been

Enboard obviously lacks some things. There's no proper landing page, no sitewide search, no profile pages and editing large boards needs some performance improvements.

I might implement them in future but right now I've had to stop working on Enboard and to focus on other things that are going in my life and on other projects. One of them is GGather.


Resources

Enboard couldn't be made single-handedly in such a short span amount of time without articles, libraries, tools and services listed below.

Articles

Design

Front-End

Back-End

Services

Tools

Dominik Serafin Product Designer. Full Stack Engineer. Creator of GGather.com.

About & Contact

Product Designer

I always found creating something from scratch very captivating. That fascination transfered to years of experience in digital products design.

I avoid overengineered and bloated systems in favor of intuitive, simple and clear solutions.

Full-Stack Engineer

If you can think it, I will create it. I deliver very organized, scalable and highly optimized code which can be later maintained with ease.

My strongest experience is in modern component based front-end and back-end engineering with Python and Django.

Available for Work

If you need help with your project(s) and you want it done properly - then I'm your guy.

You can contact me through or using the social networks listed in the header.