What is a Front-end library, and is a framework the same thing?
First, let’s understand how they are similar; both libraries and frameworks describe pre-written collections of code (written by someone else) that reduce your workload by standardizing patterns and providing solutions to common problems. Their purpose is to reduce and simplify the amount of custom code you must write for your web-app’s front-end. The flexibility they give you to write that custom code determines if it is a framework or a library.
A library is a collection of patterns or a base foundation to write your code. While it provides structure and quick ways to solve common problems, it is not a complete application in and of itself. It is up to the developer to use this foundation to build their app. A framework, on the other hand, is nearly a complete project all on its own. It will generally provide you with some predetermined options for customization, but how flexible it is, depends on the specific framework in question.
While this article doesn’t list out the pros and cons for each available front-end framework, if you’re interested in learning about a specific framework, I’d suggest starting with Smashing Magazine’s Guide to Front End Frameworks, which provides an overview of some of the more popular frameworks like React and Vue.JS.
What are the pros and cons of a front-end framework/library?
If you’re considering implementing a library or framework into a new or existing project, it is essential to understand if it is suitable for your project. With so many choices in front-end frameworks, the first step for any project is weighing the high-level pros and cons of including 3rd party code.
- More reliable. A standardized, pre-packaged front-end foundation provides you with a widely used and frequently updated codebase. As a result, you can be more confident that it will be bug-free and widely supported across browsers/devices. You also get the benefit of documentation and support from the larger community
- Faster front-end development, quicker prototypes: Alongside a standardized, more efficient, and reliable solution, they reduce the amount of code you must write, do a lot of the heavy lifting, and be more flexible than code written to solve one problem for a specific application
- A consistent, standardized front-end approach. Front-end frameworks and libraries encourage a standard approach for a project, allowing multiple contributors to worry less about interpreting custom code and more about adhering to the framework’s standards. How insistent a library or framework is on following its specific patterns determines how opinionated it is. Highly opinionated tools make moving from one project to the next simpler but allow for less flexibility in custom code handling non-standard implementations
- A faster, more delightful user experience: Front-end libraries/frameworks can help your web app perform more like a native (mobile) application by implementing features such as client-side routing. This can reduce times from user interaction to result, remove or reduce page-refreshes, and allow for the potential of smooth animations/transitions between page changes. Furthermore, libraries and frameworks are frequently updated and improved because of the extensive community of developers who use them, creating extremely performant, reliable, and concise code. This can increase your website’s performance and provide a cleaner and more elegant experience
- Overly complex for simple projects. Front-end frameworks/libraries can add unnecessary bloat to a simple landing page or microsite projects that don’t often benefit from the efficiencies they provide
- Hard to integrate into heavily customized legacy front-ends. While the benefits can outweigh the headaches of integrating a framework or library into an existing project, integration can often be a painful process, especially for projects built with highly specialized, out-of-date, or customized code
- Opinionated Front-End Approaches: Many of the most popular options have rigid approaches that dictate development along a specific path. This can require your team to either adopt its approach or attempt to customize it and, in some cases, work backward to undo the original implementation. While this can be mitigated by choosing the proper front-end framework for your specific project, forcing a framework or library to function differently than intended can negate many benefits around standardization, efficiency, and reliability
- Updates can introduce bugs: Depending on how much you customize the code, updates can sometimes introduce breaking changes and reinforce the need for a more thorough QA process, which can overwhelm smaller teams without adequate QA resources
- Training: While one of the hallmark benefits is standardization, selecting a framework or library requires a commitment to maintaining and growing a specific skill set. For organizations adopting a new framework, ensuring that your talent has adequate training and updating your hiring/partner recruitment practices is vital. In addition, depending on the resources available to your organization, using a framework or library can create knowledge gaps, technical debt and increase development timelines
As with any development decision, deciding whether to use a front-end framework or library should be weighed against the specific needs of a project - it’s not uncommon to develop with different front-end codebases between projects. The main question should be, “will the inclusion of a framework or library help meet the goals of my project?”