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Over 10 years ago, I wrote my first blog post. Since then, I've authored books, had kids, traveled the world, found Trish and blogged about it all.

Refreshing AppFuse's UI with Twitter Bootstrap

The last time AppFuse had an update done to its look and feel was in way back in 2006. I've done a lot of consulting since then, which has included a fair bit of page speed optimization, HTML5 development and integrating smarter CSS. It was way back in '05 when we first started looking at adding a CSS Framework to AppFuse. It was Mike Stenhouse's CSS Framework that provided the inspiration and my CSS Framework Design Contest that provided its current themes (puzzlewithstyle, andreas01 and simplicity).

Since then, a lot of CSS Frameworks have been invented, including Blueprint in 2007 and Compass in 2008. However, neither has taken the world by storm like Twitter Bootstrap. From Building Twitter Bootstrap:

A year-and-a-half ago, a small group of Twitter employees set out to improve our team’s internal analytical and administrative tools. After some early meetings around this one product, we set out with a higher ambition to create a toolkit for anyone to use within Twitter, and beyond. Thus, we set out to build a system that would help folks like us build new projects on top of it, and Bootstrap was conceived.
Today, it has grown to include dozens of components and has become the most popular project on GitHub with more than 13,000 watchers and 2,000 forks.

The fact that Bootstrap has become the most popular project on GitHub says a lot. For, I'd like to integrate a lot of my learnings over the past few years, as well as support HTML5 and modern browsers as best we can. This means page speed optimizations, getting rid of Prototype and Scriptaculous in favor of jQuery, adding wro4j for resource optimization and integrating HTML5 Boilerplate. I've used Twitter Bootstrap for my Play More! app, as well as some recent client projects. Its excellent documentation has made it easy to use and I love the way you can simply add classes to elements to make them transform into something beautiful.

Last week, I spent a couple late nights integrating Twitter Bootstrap 2.0 into the Struts 2 and Spring MVC versions of AppFuse. The layout was pretty straightforward thanks to Scaffolding. Creating the Struts Menu Velocity template to produce dropdowns wasn't too difficult. I added class="table table-condensed" to the list screen tables, class="well form-horizontal" to forms and class="btn primary" to buttons.

I also added validation errors with the "help-inline" class. This is also where things got tricky with Struts and Spring MVC. For the form elements in Bootstrap, they recommend you use a "control-group" element that contains your label and a "controls" element. The control contains the input/select/textarea and also the error message if there is one. Here's a sample element waiting for data:

<div class="control-group">
    <label for="name" class="control-label">Name</label>
    <div class="controls">
        <input type="text" id="name" name="name">

Below is what that element should look like to display a validation error:

<div class="control-group error">
    <label for="name" class="control-label">Name</label>
    <div class="controls">
        <input type="text" id="name" name="name" value="">
        <span class="help-inline">Please enter your name.</span>

You can see this markup is pretty easy, you just need to add an "error" class to control-group and span to show the error message. With Struts 2, this was pretty easy thanks to its customizable templates for its tags. All I had to do was create a "template/css_xhtml" directory in src/main/webapp and modify checkbox.ftl, controlfooter.ftl, controlheader-core.ftl and controlheader.ftl to match Bootstrap's conventions.

Spring MVC was a bit trickier. Since its tags don't have the concept of writing an entire control (label and field), I had to do a bit of finagling to get things to work. In the current implementation, Struts 2 forms have a single line for a control-group and its control-label and controls.

<s:textfield key="user.firstName" required="true"/>

With Spring MVC, it's a bit more complex:

<spring:bind path="user.firstName">
<fieldset class="control-group${(not empty status.errorMessage) ? ' error' : ''}">
    <appfuse:label styleClass="control-label" key="user.firstName"/>
    <div class="controls">
        <form:input path="firstName" id="firstName" maxlength="50"/>
        <form:errors path="firstName" cssClass="help-inline"/>

You could probably overcome this verbosity with Tag Files.

Figuring out if a control-group needed an error class before the input tag was rendered was probably the hardest part of this exercise. This was mostly due to Bootstrap's great documentation and useful examples (viewed by inspecting the markup). Below are some screenshots of the old screens and new ones.

Old UI - Login Old UI - Users Old UI - Edit Profile

New UI - Login New UI - Users New UI - Edit Profile

Check out the full set on Flickr if you'd like a closer look.

Even though I like the look of the old UI, I can't help but think a lot of the themes are designed for blogs and content sites, not webapps. The old Wufoo forms were a lot better looking though. And if you're going to develop kick-ass webapps, you need to make them look good. Bootstrap goes a long way in doing this, but it certainly doesn't replace a good UX Designer. Bootstap simply helps you get into HTML5-land, start using CSS3 and it takes the pain out of making things work cross-browser. Its fluid layouts and responsive web design seems to work great for business applications, which I'm guessing AppFuse is used for the most.

I can't thank the Bootstrap developers enough for helping me make this all look good. With Bootstrap 2 dropping this week, I can see myself using this more and more on projects. In the near future, I'll be helping integrate Bootstrap into AppFuse's Tapestry 5 and JSF versions.

What do you think of this CSS change? Do you change your CSS and layout a fair bit when starting with AppFuse archetypes? What can we do to make AppFuse apps look better out-of-the-box?

Update: I updated AppFuse to the final Bootstrap 2.0 release. Also, Johannes Geppert wrote a Struts 2 Bootstrap Plugin. I hope to integrate this into AppFuse in the near future.

Posted in Java at Jan 31 2012, 05:12:17 PM MST 10 Comments