All entries for Tuesday 20 February 2007

February 20, 2007

Why websites don't matter any more

In the couse of some site-redesign work today, someone said ‘I want this to be up there with the best sites you can think of’. Which got me thinking; what are the best sites I can think of?

A few years ago, that would have been pretty easy to answer. I used to spend a lot of time browsing the net, going around sites and reading the information they contained.

Now, however, I find that I just don’t do that any more. My usage of the web falls into three categories:

  • Web apps – the google suite (calendar, personalised home page, mail, etc), plus things like and flickr. Not really ‘sites’ in the sense that the questioner was asking.
  • RSS feeds – I have a pretty big blogroll, and I read a lot of web content this way, via Google reader and/or Bloglines. Here, the underlying design of the site, the presentation, and the other content on the site, is more or less irrelevant. What matters is just the content of the specific article I’m reading. I might follow one or two links from within my reader, but rarely further than one level out.
  • Search hits – I tend to avoid at all costs having to navigate a site. Don’t make me learn your ontology! If I want to find something out, I’ll google it. There are a couple of refinements; if I know that a site’s own search will return me better results, I’ll use that. So I use Warwick’s web search (for protected content), Flickr’s image search, Wikipedia search, Oracle’s OTN, and Amazon’s search. Once I’ve got a hit for a search, I might follow a couple of links, but that’s about it; any more than that and I’m back to google with a refined search.

And that’s about it. For me, the experience of actually ‘browsing’ the web, of speculatively navigating around a site looking for some bit of content seems to be more or less over.
Which means that for me, the question of ‘what’s the best site’ isn’t really very meaningful. Your site is the best if it contains the content that I’m looking for, and if google or my feed reader can find it.
What it looks like, or how it’s structured, isn’t really interesting to me any more (though if you’ve got a nice clear font on a pale background, that would help).

I wonder if I’m typical or not. If I am, my questioner was asking the wrong question; instead of worrying about how to make the site look amazing, he should have been worrying about how to fill it with amazing content that his users would want, and be able to google for. But maybe there are still people who just bounce around from link to link, hoping to find something that catches their eye?

Spring and the golden XML hammer

Writing about web page

This article describes as best practice, one of the things that I’m really coming to dislike about the Spring Framework – the tendency to use XML for object construction for no better reason than ‘because I can’.

Now, I love spring; It’s revolutionised the way I, and many others, write code, and for the better. But it does have a tendency to produce reams of XML. As a data format, I think XML is OK. It’s precise, and the tooling is good, though it’s a good deal more verbose than something like JSON or YAML, which, IMO, have 80% of the functionality with 20% of the overhead.

For aspects of an application which are genuinely configuration, such as the mapping of URLs to controllers, or configuration of persistence contexts, XML is better than code; no doubt about it. For the construction of object graphs, XML is sometimes better than code. But this example is just pushing it too far. It describes setting up an observer/observable pair, using the side-effects of spring’s MethodInvokingFactoryBean to call the addListener() method, rather than doing it in code.

Now, this is just clunky. Instead of one line of code that says


we have this

<bean id="registerTownResident1" 
    <property name="targetObject"><ref local="townCrier"/></property>
    <property name="targetMethod"><value>addListener</value></property>
    <property name="arguments">
      <ref bean="townResident1"/>

Ten lines of XML. No static type-checking (I hope you’ve got a bunch of tests that verify your contexts…) The addListener invocation, the thing we’re trying to achieve here, is kind of buried; the bean that’s actually generated is never used, the whole thing is far from obvious in it’s intent.

The only notional advantage I can see is that you can add and remove listeners without touching the code. But how much of an advantage is that? In most situations, where you’re using a method-invoking synchronous observer/subject pattern like this, listeners are part of the application, and not part of the configuration; you wouldn’t remove one without first consulting a developer anyway. When you’ve got genuinely replaceable listeners, then it’s more common IME to have some kind of an abstraction like a JMS queue or a message bus in between subject and listener, so that the listeners are registered with the queue, not the subject itself.

If it were up to me, I’d probably have a class called when the context is built (via an ApplicationListener maybe), which explicitly built up the subject/observer relations. If I had some configurable relationships, I might pass in a list of observers, but that’s about as far as it would go;

\\ set by IOC
setChangeEventListeners(List<ChangeEventListener> listeners){
   this.changeListenersToRegister = listeners;

  \\ configure a subject with a list of observers
   for (ChangeEventListener listener : this.changeListenersToRegister){

   \\ now hard-code a subject that won't need to change frequently
   auditLog.addListener(new log4j.Category("AUDIT_LOG");

  \\ ... and so on  

- this object starts to look a bit vague and ill-defined, doing a little with lots of objects, but that’s because really it’s just a part of the context/configuration; it’s not a part of the domain per se.

There are a few other options that, in some situations, might be better than this;

  • Give the subject a constructor that takes a list of observers, and let it wire them at construction time – then pass the list from within your XML context
  • If you can’t modify the subject itself, make a custom FactoryBean that takes the list of observers, constructs the subject and adds all the observers to it
  • One that requires a bit of divergence from the standard Spring usage. Have a context that’s defined by a bit of scripting code – JRuby, or BSH, or javascript/rhino, rather than by XML. That way you make your method calls more explicit, and allow developers to easily see what relationships are being built up , whilst still keeping some clear separation between the configuration and the java code. If you had loads of Observer/subject configuration to maintain, you could define a little DSL for it (or store it in a database) and have a custom context to parse the DSL and configure the beans.

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