Watch Your Language!

I’m bilingual. My first language is French. I learned English in my early 20s. Learning a new language later in life meant that I was able to observe my thought processes changing over time. It made me realize that some concepts can’t be expressed in some languages, while other languages express these concepts with ease.

It also helped me understand the way we label languages. English: business. French: romance. Here’s an example of how words, or the absence thereof, can affect the way we think:

In French we love everything. There’s no straightforward way to say we like something, so we just end up loving everything. I love my sisters, I love broccoli, I love programming, I love my partner, I love doing laundry (this is a lie), I love my mom (this is not a lie). I love, I love, I love. It’s no wonder French is considered romantic. When I first learned English I used the word love rather than like because I hadn’t grasped the difference. Needless to say, I’ve scared away plenty of first dates!

Learning another language made me realize the limitations of my native language and revealed concepts I didn’t know existed. Without the nuances a given language provides, we fail to express what we really think. The absence of words in our vocabulary gets in the way of effectively communicating and considering ideas.

When I lived in Montréal, most people in my circle spoke both French and English. I could switch between them when I could more easily express an idea in one language or the other. I liked (or should I say loved?) those conversations. They were meaningful. They were efficient.


I’m quadrilingual. I code in Ruby, HTML/CSS, JavaScript, Python. In the past couple of years I have been lucky enough to write code in these languages at a massive scale. In learning Ruby, much like learning English, I discovered the strengths and limitations of not only the languages I knew but the language I was learning. It taught me to choose the right tool for the job.

When I started working at Shopify, making a change to a view involved copy/pasting HTML and ERB from one view to another. The CSS was roughly structured into modules, but those modules were not responsive to different screen sizes. Our HTML was complete mayhem, and we didn’t consider accessibility. All this made editing views a laborious process.

Grep. Replace all. Test. Ship it. Repeat.

This wasn’t sustainable at Shopify’s scale, so the newly-formed front end team was given two missions:

  • Make the app responsive (AKA Let’s Make This Thing Responsive ASAP)
  • Make the view layer scalable and maintainable (AKA Let’s Build a Pattern Library… in Ruby)

Let’s make this thing responsive ASAP

The year was 2015. The Shopify admin wasn’t mobile friendly. Our browser support was set to IE10. We had the wind in our sails. We wanted to achieve complete responsiveness in the shortest amount of time. Our answer: container queries.

It seemed like the obvious decision at the time. We would be able to set rules for each component in isolation and the component would know how to lay itself out on the page regardless of where it was rendered. It would save us a ton of development time since we wouldn’t need to change our markup, it would scale well, and we would achieve complete component autonomy by not having to worry about page layout. By siloing our components, we were going to unlock the ultimate goal of componentization, cutting the tie to external dependencies. We were cool.

Writing the JavaScript handling container queries was my first contribution to Shopify. It was a satisfying project to work on. We could drop our components in anywhere and they would magically look good. It took us less than a couple weeks to push this to production and make our app mostly responsive. But with time, it became increasingly obvious that this was not as performant as we had hoped. It wasn’t performant at all. Components would jarringly jump around the page before settling in on first paint.

It was only when we started using the flex-wrap: wrap CSS property to build new components that we realized we were not using the right language for the job. So we swapped out JavaScript container queries for CSS flex-wrapping. Even though flex wasn’t yet as powerful as we wanted it to be, it was still a good compromise. Our components stayed independent of the window size but took much less time to render. Best of all: they used CSS instead of relying on JavaScript for layout.

In other words: we were using the wrong language to express our layout to the browser, when another language could do it much more simply and elegantly.

Let’s build a pattern library… in Ruby

In order to make our view layer maintainable, we chose to build a comprehensive library of helpers. This library would generate our markup from a single source of truth, allowing us to make changes system-wide, in one place. No. More. Grepping.

When I joined Shopify it was a Rails shop freshly wounded by a JavaScript framework (See: Batman.js). JavaScript was like Voldemort, the language that could not be named. Because of this baggage, the only way for us to build a pattern library that would get buyin from our developers was to use Rails view helpers. And for many reasons using Ruby was the right choice for us. The time spent ramping developers up on the new UI Components would be negligible since the Ruby API felt familiar. The transition would be simple since we didn’t have to introduce any new technology to the stack. The components would be fast since they would be rendered on the server. We had a plan.

We put in place a set of Rails tools to make it easy to build components, then wrote a bunch of sweet, sweet components using our shiny new tools. To document our design, content and front end patterns we put together an interactive styleguide to demonstrate how every component works. Our research and development department loved it (and still do)! We continue to roll out new components, and generally the project has been successful, though it has had its drawbacks.

Since the Shopify admin is mostly made up of a huge number of forms, most of the content is static. For this reason, using server-rendered components didn’t seem like a problem at the time. With new app features increasing the amount of DOM manipulation needed on the client side, our early design decisions mean making requests to the server for each re-paint. This isn’t going to cut it.

I don’t know the end of this story, because we haven’t written it yet. We’ve been exploring alternatives to our current system to facilitate the rendering of our components on the client, including React, Vue.js, and Web Components, but we haven’t determined the winner yet. Only time (and data gathering) will tell.

Ruby is great but it doesn’t speak the browser’s language efficiently. It was not the right language for the job.


Learning a new spoken language has had an impact on how I write code. It has taught me that you don’t know what you don’t know until you have the language to express it. Understanding the strengths and limitations of any programming language is fundamental to making good design decisions. At the end of the day, you make the best choices with the information you have. But if you still feel like you’re unable to express your thoughts to the fullest with what you know, it might be time to learn a new language.

About the author

Annie-Claude Côté is a Senior Developer who actively gives a shit about UX. She works at Shopify based out of Ottawa, Ontario, Canada. She’s serious about code quality, optimization and finding all the edge cases. All of them.

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