Introduction to Scriptaculous Effects

Gather around kids, because this year, much like in that James Bond movie with Denise Richards, Christmas is coming early… in the shape of scrumptuous smooth javascript driven effects at your every whim.

Now what I’m going to do, is take things down a notch. Which is to say, you don’t need to know much beyond how to open a text file and edit it to follow this article. Personally, I for instance can’t code to save my life.

Well, strictly speaking, that’s not entirely true. If my life was on the line, and the code needed was really simple and I wasn’t under any time constraints, then yeah maybe I could hack my way out of it

But my point is this: I’m not a programmer in the traditional sense of the word. In fact, what I do best, is scrounge code off of other people, take it apart and then put it back together with duct tape, chewing gum and dumb blind luck.

No, don’t run! That happens to be a good thing in this case. You see, we’re going to be implementing some really snazzy effects (which are considerably more relevant than most people are willing to admit) on your site, and we’re going to do it with the aid of Thomas Fuchs’ amazing Script.aculo.us library. And it will be like stealing candy from a child.

What Are We Doing?

I’m going to show you the very basics of implementing the Script.aculo.us javascript library’s Combination Effects. These allow you to fade elements on your site in or out, slide them up and down and so on.

Why Use Effects at All?

Before get started though, let me just take a moment to explain how I came to see smooth transitions as something more than smoke and mirror-like effects included for with little more motive than to dazzle and make parents go ‘uuh, snazzy’.

Earlier this year, I had the good fortune of meeting the kind, gentle and quite knowledgable Matt Webb at a conference here in Copenhagen where we were both speaking (though I will be the first to admit my little talk on Open Source Design was vastly inferior to Matt’s talk). Matt held a talk called Fixing Broken Windows (based on the Broken Windows theory), which really made an impression on me, and which I have since then referred back to several times.

You can listen to it yourself, as it’s available from Archive.org. Though since Matt’s session uses many visual examples, you’ll have to rely on your imagination for some of the examples he runs through during it. Also, I think it looses audio for a few seconds every once in a while.

Anyway, one of the things Matt talked a lot about, was how our eyes are wired to react to movement. The world doesn’t flickr. It doesn’t disappear or suddenly change and force us to look for the change. Things move smoothly in the real world. They do not pop up.

How it Works

Once the necessary files have been included, you trigger an effect by pointing it at the ID of an element. Simple as that.

Implementing the Effects

So now you know why I believe these effects have a place in your site, and that’s half the battle. Because you see, actually getting these effects up and running, is deceptively simple.

First, go and download the latest version of the library (as of this writing, it’s version 1.5 rc5). Unzip itand open it up.

Now we’re going to bypass the instructions in the readme file. Script.aculo.us can do a bunch of quite advanced things, but all we really want from it is its effects. And by sidestepping the rest of the features, we can shave off roughly 80KB of unnecessary javascript, which is well worth it if you ask me.

As with Drew’s article on Easy Ajax with Prototype, script.aculo.us also uses the Prototype framework by Sam Stephenson. But contrary to Drew’s article, you don’t have to download Prototype, as a version comes bundled with script.aculo.us (though feel free to upgrade to the latest version if you so please).

So in the unzipped folder, containing the script.aculo.us files and folder, go into ‘lib’ and grab the ‘prototype.js’ file. Move it to whereever you want to store the javascript files. Then fetch the ‘effects.js’ file from the ‘src’ folder and put it in the same place.

To make things even easier for you to get this up and running, I have prepared a small javascript snippet which does some checking to see what you’re trying to do. The script.aculo.us effects are all either ‘turn this off’ or ‘turn this on’. What this snippet does, is check to see what state the target currently has (is it on or off?) and then use the necessary effect.

You can either skip to the end and download the example code, or copy and paste this code into a file manually (I’ll refer to that file as combo.js):

Effect.OpenUp = function(element) {
     element = $(element);
     new Effect.BlindDown(element, arguments[1] || {});
 }

 Effect.CloseDown = function(element) {
     element = $(element);
     new Effect.BlindUp(element, arguments[1] || {});
 }

 Effect.Combo = function(element) {
     element = $(element);
     if(element.style.display == 'none') { 
          new Effect.OpenUp(element, arguments[1] || {}); 
     }else { 
          new Effect.CloseDown(element, arguments[1] || {}); 
     }
 }

Currently, this code uses the BlindUp and BlindDown code, which I personally like, but there’s nothing wrong with you changing the effect-type into one of the other effects available.

Now, include the three files in the header of your code, like so:

<script src="prototype.js" type="text/javascript"></script>
<script src="effects.js" type="text/javascript"></script>
<script src="combo.js" type="text/javascript"></script>

Now insert the element you want to use the effect on, like so:

<div id="content" style="display: none;">Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet.</div>

The above element will start out invisible, and when triggered will be revealed. If you want it to start visible, simply remove the style parameter.

And now for the trigger

<a href="javascript:Effect.Combo('content');">Click Here</a>

And that, is pretty much it. Clicking the link should unfold the DIV targeted by the effect, in this case ‘content’.

Effect Options

Now, it gets a bit long-haired though. The documentation for script.aculo.us is next to non-existing, and because of that you’ll have to do some digging yourself to appreciate the full potentialof these effects.

First of all, what kind of effects are available? Well you can go to the demo page and check them out, or you can open the ‘effects.js’ file and have a look around, something I recommend doing regardlessly, to gain an overview of what exactly you’re dealing with.

If you dissect it for long enough, you can even distill some of the options available for the various effects. In the case of the BlindUp and BlindDown effect, which we’re using in our example (as triggered from combo.js), one of the things that would be interesting to play with would be the duration of the effect. If it’s too long, it will feel slow and unresponsive. Too fast and it will be imperceptible.

You set the options like so:

<a href="javascript:Effect.Combo('content', {duration: .2});">Click Here</a>

The change from the previous link being the inclusion of , {duration: .2}. In this case, I have lowered the duration to 0.2 second, to really make it feel snappy.

You can also go all-out and turn on all the bells and whistles of the Blind effect like so (slowed down to a duration of three seconds so you can see what’s going on):

<a href="javascript:Effect.Combo('content', {duration: 3, scaleX: true, scaleContent: true});">Click Here</a>

Conclusion

And that’s pretty much it. The rest is a matter of getting to know the rest of the effects and their options as well as finding out just when and where to use them. Remember the ancient Chinese saying: Less is more.

Download Example

I have prepared a very basic example, which you can download and use as a reference point.

About the author

Michael Heilemann is a 30-year-old Computer Game Developer and Interface Design Enthusiast from Copenhagen, Denmark.

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