Friday, 24 May, 2019 UTC


Summary

You can have the best open source project in the world but, if it doesn’t have good documentation, chances are it’ll never take off. In the office, good documentation could save you having to repeatedly answer the same questions. Documentation ensures that people can figure out how things work if key employees decide to leave the company or change roles. Well documented coding guidelines help bring consistency to a codebase.
If you’re writing long-form text, Markdown is clearly a great alternative to authoring HTML. Sometimes though, Markdown syntax isn’t enough. It’s always been possible to write straight HTML inside of Markdown documents. This includes custom elements so, if you’re building a design system with native web components, it’s easy to incorporate them inside your text-based documentation. If you’re working with React (or any other framework that speaks JSX, like Preact or Vue), you can do the same thing by using MDX.
This article is a broad overview of the tools available for writing documentation and for building style guides. Not all the tools listed here make use of MDX but it’s increasingly being incorporated into documentation tooling.

What is MDX?

A .mdx file has exactly the same syntax as a regular Markdown file, but lets you import interactive JSX components and embed them within your content. Support for Vue components is in alpha. It’s easy to get MDX set up with Create React App. There are MDX plugins for Next.js and Gatsby. The forthcoming version two release of Docusaurus will also come with built-in support.

Writing documentation with Docusaurus

Docusaurus is made by Facebook and used by every Facebook open source project, apart from React. It’s also used by many major open source projects outside of Facebook, including Redux, Prettier, Gulp and Babel.
Projects making use of Docusaurus.
You can use Docusaurus to document anything — it isn’t front-end specific. Docusaurus uses React under the hood, but you don’t have to know that framework to make use of it. It’ll take your Markdown files and turn them into a nicely-structured, well-formatted and readable documentation site, with a nice design right out of the box.
The Redux site shows the typical Docusaurus layout
Sites created with Docusaurus can also include a Markdown-based blog. Prism.js is included by default for zero-setup syntax highlighting. While relatively new, Docusaurus has proven popular, being voted the number one new tool of 2018 on StackShare.

Other options for written content

Docusaurus specifically caters to building documentation. Of course, there are a million and one ways to make a website — so you could roll your own solution with any back-end language, CMS, or static site generator.
The documentation sites for React, IBM’s design system, Apollo and Ghost CMS use Gatsby, for example — a generic static site generator often used for blogs. If you work with the Vue framework, VuePress is becoming a popular option. MkDocs is an open source static site generator for creating documentation, written in Python and configured with a single YAML file. GitBook is a popular paid product that’s free for open-source and non-profit teams. If you're building internal documentation and want something easy, the reading experience on GitHub itself isn’t half bad, so you could just commit some Markdown files and leave it at that.

Documenting components: Docz, Storybook and Styleguidist

Style guides, design systems, pattern libraries — whatever you want to call them — have become a hugely popular area of concern in the last decade. What’s really made the difference in turning them from vanity projects into useful tools isn’t the pontificating of thought leaders but the emergence of component-driven frameworks, like React, and the tools mentioned here.
Storybook, Docz and Styleguidist all do much the same thing: display interactive UI components and document their API. A project may have dozens or even hundreds of components to keep track of — all with a variety to states and styles. If you want components to be reused, people have to know that they exist. We aid discoverability when we catalog components. A style guide gives an easily searchable and scannable overview of all your UI components. This helps to maintain visual consistency and avoid duplicating work.
These tools provide a convenient way to review different states. It can be difficult to reproduce every state of a component in the context of a real application. Rather than needing to click through an actual app, developing a component in isolation can be helpful. Hard-to-reach states (like a loading state, for example) can be mocked.
Dan Green wrote a nice synopsis of the benefits of using Storybook, but it applies equally to Docz and Styleguidist:
"Storybook has made it really easy for designers who code to collaborate with engineers. By working in storybook they don't need to get a whole environment running (docker container, etc). For Wave, we have many important components that are only visible in the middle of a process that is short lived and time consuming to reproduce (i.e. a loading screen that only shows while a user is having their payment account set up). Before Storybook, we didn't have a good way to work on these components and were forced to temporary hacks in order to make them visible. Now, with Storybook we have an isolated place to easily work on them, which has the bonus feature of being easily accessible for designers and PMs. It also makes it really easy for us to show off these states in sprint demos."
- Dan Green, Wave Financial
As well as visualizing different states side-by-side and listing props, its often helpful to have written content about a component — whether its explaining the design rationale, use-cases, or describing the results of user-testing. Markdown is easy enough for *anybody* to learn — ideally a style guide should be a joint resource for designers and developers that both disciplines contribute to. Docz, Styleguidist and Storybook all offer a way to seamlessly intermingle Markdown with the components themselves.

Docz

Currently, Docz is a React-only project, but is working on support for Preact, Vue and web components. Docz is the newest of the three tools, but has already amounted over 14,000+ stars on GitHub. It is, to my mind, the easiest solution to work with. Docz provides two components — <Playground> and <Props>. These are imported and used directly in .mdx files.
import { Playground, Props } from "docz";
import Button from "../src/Button";

## You can _write_ **markdown**
### You can import and use components

<Button>click</Button>
You can wrap your own React components with <Playground> to create the equivalent of an embedded CodePen or CodeSandbox — a view of your component alongside editable code.
<Playground>
  <Button>click</Button>
</Playground>
<Props> will show all the available props for a given React component, default values, and whether the prop is required.
<Props of={Button} />
I personally find this MDX-based approach the simplest to understand and the easiest to work with.
If you’re a fan of the React-based static-site generator Gatsby, Docz offers great integration.

Styleguidist

Just like with Docz, examples are written using Markdown syntax. Styleguidist uses Markdown code blocks (triple backticks) in regular .md files rather than MDX:
```js
<Button onClick={() => console.log('clicked')>Push Me</Button>
```
Code blocks in Markdown usually just show the code. With Styleguidist, any code block with a language tag of js, jsx or javascript will be rendered as a React component along with the code. Just like with Docz, the code is editable — you can change props and instantly see the result.
Styleguidist will automatically create a table of props from either PropTypes, Flow or Typescript declarations.
Styleguidist currently supports React and Vue.

Storybook

Storybook markets itself as "a development environment for UI components." Rather than writing examples of components inside Markdown or MDX files, you write *stories* inside Javascript files. A *story* documents a particular state of a component. A component might have stories for a loading state and a disabled state, for example.
storiesOf('Button', module)
  .add('disabled', () => (
    <Button disabled>lorem ipsum</Button>
  ))
Storybook is less straightforward to use than Styleguidist and Docz. At over 36,000 GitHub stars though, it’s the most popular option. It’s an open source project with 657 contributors and a full-time maintainer. It is used by, among others, Airbnb, Algolia, Atlassian, Lyft, and Salesforce. Storybook supports more frameworks than any other offering — React, React Native, Vue, Angular, Mithril, Ember, Riot, Svelte and plain HTML are all supported.
Writing documentation about components currently requires addons. In a future release, Storybook is taking inspiration from Docz and adopting MDX.
# Button

Some _notes_ about your button written with **markdown syntax**.

<Story name="disabled">
  <Button disabled>lorem ipsum</Button>
</Story>
Storybook’s new Docs feature is being rolled out incrementally over the next couple of months and looks set to be a big step forward.
Do you use @storybookjs for component docs or design systems? You're gonna love DocBlocks:
📦 Drop into MDX
🏗 Modular and composable
🤝 Compatible w/ @gatsbyjs, #nextjs, etc
🔜 https://t.co/AmE4l9B3FU by @mshilman pic.twitter.com/Q48PQCmiEt
— Dominic Nguyen (@domyen) April 28, 2019

Wrapping up

The benefits of pattern libraries have been extolled at nauseating length in a million Medium articles. When done well, they aid visual consistency and facilitate the creation of cohesive products. Of course, none of these tools can magic up a design system. That takes careful thought about both design and CSS. But when it comes time to communicate that system to the rest of an organization, Docz, Storybook and Styleguidist are all great options.
The post Front-End Documentation, Style Guides and the Rise of MDX appeared first on CSS-Tricks.