Blog @romenrg

Thoughts and experiences; about Software, Internet and Entrepreneurship.

About UX in Modern Web Interfaces and Backbone.js: Choropleth Maps

I would like to start this post anouncing that this month I am leaving Arte Consultores Tecnológicos, after one year and seven months working there as an Analyst/Programmer (Front-end Engineer). I have made this decision because right now I need to devote myself exclusively to Langproving, which is in need of my full atention at this critical moment in which our MPV is finished and we have to market it to validate our business model.

In this period of time working at Arte Consultores, I have improved significantly as an engineer. I have learnt a lot. Fortunately, I have had the great pleasure to work closely with my workmate and friend Axel Hernández, who I admire for his ability to constantly learn new technologies and for being always aware of all the new trends in software development. I’m proud to say that I have learned a lot from him. I would like to think — actually, I hope — that he has also learned something from me too while we have been working together.

One of the most valuable things I learned working at Arte was related to writing modern and usable web interfaces, not only with CSS3 animations or HTML5 new attributes and tags; but also with Javascript. In the last few years Javascript has grown up and become one of the keys of the evolution of the web. Many Javascript frameworks have emerged, ranging from those regarding DOM manipulation (jQuery) to others built to reproduce the model-view-controller (MVC) pattern in the client side, such as Backbone.js. For more than a year I have been using Backbone to create Single-page applications that provide a quick response to user interaction, without the need to re-render the full page from the server as we were used to; thus improving sifnificantly the user experience (UX).

Choropleth Maps

In the following example we have a choropleth map from Stat4you in which the unemployment rate in the different regions of Spain is shown. The darker the colour, the higher the unemployment is. I have picked this dataset randomly, but it is worth mentioning that it shows a sad reality of Spain’s economic crisis.

We can see different elements in the map with which several actions can be performed. Firstly, we have the map itself, which happens to be a SVG vectorial image. Secondly, we have a zoom bar that has two different buttons (+ and -) and also has a draggable element that allows us to decrease or increase the zoom — as you may notice, it must be somehow synchronized with the + and - buttons —. Aditionally, we can use the mouse wheel to zoom in and out (as we can do in Google Maps). We can also click on a particular region of the map to zoom in and center the display on it; and we can click in the button above the zoom seciton to zoom out, going back to the original zoom and position of the map. We have also a leyend section, which indicates the ranges covered by each colour in the map. Finally, we have the ranges bar, which has a draggable element in the middle that can be used to increase or decrease the number of ranges to be used. It is also possible to click on the bar itself to increase or decrease the number of ranges. Clicking in the right side increases by one the number or ranges and clicking in the left side decreases the number of ranges in the same amount (the draggable selector will be moved automatically).

As it can be seen, there are many elements that interact with each other. Since this is a Backbone application, everything runs on the client side. The server only loads the initial data, sends it to the client browser and then it is no needed any more. Only if the data to be displayed changes, an AJAX call is made to the server to bring new data, but not to reload the page. Anyway, this AJAX calls are beyond the scope of this post. We will focus on the interaction among the described controls of the map, which are mapped to diferent views in our MVC pattern implementation, all of them linked by a model.

In this new image we have just moved the ranges selector two positions to the left. This has caused automatically two changes in other elements, besides the changes in the ranges selector itself. On the one hand, the leyend has changed. The ranges have been re-calculated and now they are just three, instead of the initial five. Moreover, the map has been redrawed and some regions have changed their colour, since now the ranges are different and the unemployment rates of the regions are grouped diferently.

In this case, we have clicked in the autonomous city of Ceuta. When clicking in a region, as well as when we use the mouse wheel, the zoom changes. We have zoomed in to the best level of zoom in order to see the selected region properly (this is done automatically when clicking in a particular region). Moreover, the map is now centered in the selected region. As we can see, besides the changes in the map, the zoom controls have also changed. The selector is now stuck to the top, stating that the maximum level of zoom is being used.

As you can see, there are several actions that affect different elements of the maps. All of them are being performed in the client side, in the user’s browser, thanks to Javascript and, in this case, thanks to the use of Backbone MVC Framework too. To display each element we have used different Handlebars templates. For the special case of the SVG maps, it is worth mentioning that they are being displayed by using another Javascript library called D3js, which provides poweful visualization components and tools for manipulating documents based on data.

To clearify how an MVC pattern can be implemented for this sample case by using Backbone framework, the following diagram has been made.

In the diagram we have represented the User Actions, the Map Model, the different Views for each section and a Map class that could be integrated in the MapContainerView if desired. Aditionally, the HTML / SVG code to be displayed in each case is stored in Handlebars templates and it is loaded in the “render” methods of its corresponding view. During execution, every action of the user triggers an event that is captured by the Map Model. Then, the model preforms different actions depending on the behavior of the user, and once it finishes, changes in some of its attributes are made. When the model is changed, new events are fired. Each view is listening to the events triggered by the model that are associated with it, thus being able to re-render itself if needed. Moreover, in case some mayor changes that require all elements to re-render are made, the render method of the MapContainerView will be called, which will execute each element’s render in turn.

In summary, as I mentioned before, Javascrip MVC frameworks are quite powerful and lead to faster websites in which no communication with the server is needed in order to perform changes related to user actions, unless those actions require new data to be received. Definitely, the development of web interfaces combining the power of Javascript (jQuery, Backbone…) with the new animations and attributes of CSS3 and HTML5 provide us the great technical tools that have led to a new revolution of web interfaces. Moreover, if we combine these powerful tools with the implementation of design patterns such as Responsive Web Design, Graceful Degradation and Progressive Enhancement while following a User-centered design, we can achieve an amazing user experience and a great satisfaction from our customers.