It started in a funny way rather than a typical project plan, and finally turned into an important project for us in Leevio. Everyone in our team was so much excited to release our first flagship product, a web based service (mashup you can say) we called MiproApps. It is a visual designing tool for Facebook fanpages.
Facebook fanpages are popular media to publish your company information, portfolio or upcoming events on Facebook. To make your product outreach a massive amount of users, it is a popular tool that works good. While creating our fanpage for Leevio, we found that we are limited by available applications to decorate and present a page “really” well. What we could do is design our page in an ordinary way, like writing FBML tags and and embed those in a tab. Or we could develop an application and embed it’s tab to another tab on our page. Which one did we go with? NONE!
We thought that it would be really interesting if we can develop a service (some sort of a visual designer for such pages) by which everyone (anyone, seriously) can design and decorate their fanpage with some data they really want to deliver to their audience. So we did a quick meeting to find out if it was really possible by us, and the challenges we found are the followings
1. Limited canvas size,
2. Works with different data sources
3. Drag and drop friendly, with proper layering.
4. Compatible with major browsers (Firefox, Safari, IE, Opera and Chrome)
5. Proper caching and storing widget data
We decided to develop this project in a “release early, release often” fashion. We didnt want to deliver a HUGE giant bloated with too many widgets and services after working for tons of hours. Instead we wanted to deliver a working barebone skeleton for our users which performs it’s job pretty well, and then to add feature s gradually in a regular interval. It would also help us to decide quickly how users are reacting with our project.
We four developers worked really hard for next couple of weeks to make it work, in short sprints and milestones. And now it is available for your use – you can check it out at http://miproapps.com. There are more than 25 pretty useful widgets to help you designing your fanpage impressively. We’ve also added tutorials and screencasts for you. Lets see how did we work with all our challenges.
1. Limited Canvas Size
To make sure users still be able to design his page easily, we keep three pre defined size for each widgets. Width of these three sizes are designed in such a way so that anyone can design multi-column page, easily.
2. Works with different data sources.
The core of MiproApps are external data sources and a very well designed parser to parse those data source in an unified way. Guess what, most of these data source are ready to be pulled out. Almost all of them offers valid RSS/Atom feeds. And that saved us HUGE (GIGANTIC cud be more appropriate) amount of work to do by ourselves. We just collect username for each of these data sources (like twitter, youtube) and then we pulled out feeds for that specific user. Everything is about public data, and that also saved us from some pain about treating private and sensitive information. Except one widget (I will come to that later) we just asked for plain username from users. And for twitter, we had to deal with oath based authentication system so that we can pull out user’s timeline using their token. These tokens are for read-only access to be more trusted by our users. We set a caching time of 10 minutes so that we have to call only 6 times max for an user in an hour. Do you kno what is the current rate limit per user per hour in Twitter? it’s only 75!
3. Drag and drop friendliness
We choose jQuery UI as we are very good at jQuery. And I must confess, that was a very good decision indeed. The excellent support of managing draggable and droppable components in jQuery UI made our life really easier. The only thing we found tricky was to persist the draggable state of each component on “Design Canvas”. But anyway, it was done very effectively and is working really great. You should check this out at http://miproapps.com
And oh, by the way, the z-index layering was quite a UI challenge for us. On a Facebook page canvas area, the internal Facebook components has maximum z-ndex of “101”. So we had to deal with that to keep our components z-index lower than that, to avoid an overlay over any internal Facebook item (a dialog box, for example, or the notification dropdown 🙂 )
4. Compatible with major browsers
Oh boy, we were doomed in hell with a monster called IE and that really made our day terrible every minute!. However, we tamed the beast quite good and now it works well with MiproApps. Another friendly monster betrayed us at last minute, has a name “Chrome”. we are working on that subtle UI issues and hope to deliver some updates pretty soon.
5. Proper caching and storing user data
Now that was a major challenge we dealt with. Each user can use hundreds of widgets, which colt actually pull data from hundreds of different data sources out there. So caching is a very important step we’d taken care of from the first day. We used Memcached. And we designed the architecture to cache data from every widget separately, not as a page in a whole. And it was challenging to deal with failsafe condition (you remember twitter’s fail whale, right?). Some widgets needed to be dealt with extra care for the caching technology of Facebook itself. But in overall it was a good architecture and worked impressively well. We are proud of it!
Lets have a look at the tools, libraries and services we use for MiproApps
1. Subversion, definitely a life saver version controlling system.
2. Springloops as a subversion repository and deploy manager. It’s deploy manager is really awesome!
3. Lighthouse for Issue Tracking
4. Netbeans as our IDE, Mac OSX and Ubuntu as development OS. PHP and ZendFramework. For oAuth, we used PECL oAuth library. Memcached was used for caching.
5. jQuery and jQuery UI. The image slider you see on the front page was done using the brilliant Coin Slider.
6. Screencast was recorded by Screenium. Tutorial screenshots were taken using Jing.
7. Icons came from MediaLoot and legendary Silk by Famfamfam.
So that’s It – have a look at MiproApps at http://miproapps.com. Currently the application is in beta mode (all plans are free during beta – beside that, there will always be a free plan for everyone) and we are adding exciting widgets everyday. Hope you will like it.