WTF is a walking skeleton (iterative design/development)

skeleton cartoon next to bare bones website

I’m going to argue that when developing software, it can be a good idea to be skeletal.

What does that mean?

It means starting with an ugly, or clunky version of your piece of software.

Not only must it be ugly, raw and unsuitable for public consumption to be skeletal, it must also be functional.

That is to say, the skeleton must walk.

Your job once you have this skeletal form, is to go back and attach all of the things that make a skeleton less horrifying (skin and the like).

I’ll give an example and some background to hopefully clarify this idea further, as I think it is an important one, that often gets overlooked.

It’s time to learn React (again)

I have a hard time convincing myself to learn stuff for the sake of it. I like to learn things that increase my understanding of the world, make my life easier, or otherwise help me to solve a problem that I have.

For a long time, this has pushed ‘learning React’ to the bottom of the pile of things I want to do with my spare time.

I am (I think) a solid JavaScript developer, and I actually used React professionally for a brief stint years ago. At that point I had no problem picking up the framework, and I was productive pretty quickly. I like React. I also like Angular.

That said, I am definitely not as productive using React as I would be using Angular, and React has moved on since I last used it, so I tend to stick with what I know.

In an ideal world I’d probably ignore React. I don’t have religious feelings about software tools or frameworks, and I don’t like learning things for the sake of it. I like building things.

I am also currently working as a contractor. This means I need to be very good at the thing I do, in order for people to justify paying a higher rate for my services.

However… the demand for Angular developers in London, where I live, is pretty low at the moment. It seems to largely be large, slow financial organisations that are using it. These are not typically qualities I look for in a workplace.

React on the other hand is booming.

So, TL;DR it’s time to get familiar with React, even though I don’t want to.

Rob’s super simple tips for how to learn technologies really fast

  • Read the quickstart
  • Start building things
  • Get stuck
  • Read the relevant part of the manual
  • Get unstuck
  • Repeat

These are the steps I try to follow when learning a new technology. I basically like to get enough knowledge to get moving, then jump in at the deep end and start building stuff.

Once I (inevitably) get stuck, I will go back and actually read the documentation, filling in the blanks in my knowledge, and answering all the many questions I have generated by trying to build things unsuccessfully.

I find that this keeps my learning tight and focussed (and interesting), and means that I don’t spend hours reading about theoretical stuff which I might not even need yet.

So, in order to carry out my learning steps, I needed something to build.

I settled on a video game curation tool, which allows users to sign in, and record their top 5 favourite games in a nice list view, along with some text saying why.

This data can then be used to show the top 5 games per platform (Switch, Xbox, PS4, PC etc.), determined by how often they appear on users’ lists.

I also wanted the ability to see other users’ top 5 lists, via shareable links.

I don’t think this is a website that is going to make me my millions, but it is complex enough to allow me to use React to actually build something.

OK, so what does this have to do with Skeletons?

Well, when I build things, I like to make skeletons first.

So in this case, a walking skeleton of my application should be able to do all of the things I outlined above.

In order for it to be a true functional skeleton, that can be iteratively improved upon, it needs to be as close to the final product as possible, and solid enough to support iterative improvements.

So it can’t be one big blob of spaghetti code which only works on my machine on Tuesdays.

I am building a web application which will persist user preferences, so it has to be:

  • deployed to the web
  • connected to a database
  • able to authenticate a user

Regardless of what I said above about diving straight in. You shouldn’t just dive straight in.

Firstly, figure out, without getting bogged down in what tech to use, what it is you want your stuff to do.

For a web app, you probably want to have some idea about the data structures/entities you are likely to use and what they will represent, and the user flow through the front end.

In this case, I knew I wanted to do something with user generated lists of favourite games, and that I wanted to store and update them.

This meant that a cheap way to get started was to come up with some data structures, and play around with them. So that’s what I did:

 * We should optimise the data structures around the most common/massive/searched entities.
 * I think the reviews are likely to be the chunkiest data set as each user can make muchos reviews.
 * Platforms doesn't fucking matter as there are so few
 * Games are also potentially quite large and need to be searchable
 * Reviews need to be searchable/filterable by: [ platform, game-name, username, tags, star-rating ]
 * Games need to be searchable/filterable by: [ platform, name, tags, star-rating ]

const platforms = {
  "uuid-222": { name: "PS4" },
  "uuid-223": { name: "switch" },
  "uuid-224": { name: "X Box One" },
  "uuid-225": { name: "PC" },

const includedBy = {
  [platformId]: {
    [gameId]: {
      [userId]: "user comment",
  "uuid-222": {
    "uuid-312": {
      robt1019: "I loved throwing coconut at ppls hedz",

let rankedPs4Games = {};

Object.keys(includedBy["uuid-222"]).forEach((gameId) => {
  const includedCount = Object.keys(includedBy["uuid-222"]["gameId"]).length;
  if (rankedPs4Games[includedCount]) {
  } else {
    rankedPs4Games[includedCount] = [gameId];

const games = {
  "uuid-313": {
    name: "Zelda Breath of the Wild",
    platforms: ["uuid-223"],
  "uuid-312": {
    name: "Hitman 2",
    platforms: ["uuid-222", "uuid-223", "uuid-224", "uuid-225"],

const users = {
  robt1019: {
    name: "Rob Taylor",
    top5: [{ gameId: "uuid-312", platformId: "uuid-222" }],
  didarina: {
    name: "Didar Ekmekci",
    top5: [{ gameId: "uuid-313", platformId: "uuid-223" }],

 * Use includedBy count for aggregate views. Only viewable by platform. No aggregate view.

It is important to note that these data structures have since turned out to be slightly wrong for what I want, and I have changed them… iteratively, but playing with them in this form before writing any code allowed my to iron out some nasty kinks, and ensure that I wasn’t trying to do anything that would be truly horrible from a data perspective later on.

I also spent a good hour scribbling in a note pad with some terrible drawings of different screens, to mentally go through what a user would have to do to navigate the site.

At all times we’re trying to make a solid, rough and ready skeleton that will stand up on its own, not a beautifully formed fleshy ankle that is incapable of working with any other body parts!

Be a Scientist

The main benefit of this approach, is that you are continually gathering extremely useful information, and you can very quickly prove, or disprove your hypotheses about how the application should be structured, and how it should perform.

By emphasising getting a fully fledged application up and running, deployed to the web and with all of the key functionality present, you are forced to spend your time wisely, and you take away a lot of the risk of working with a new set of tools.

What did I learn/produce in four days thanks to the Skeleton:

  • React can be deployed with one command to the web using Heroku and a community build pack.
  • How to deploy a React application to Heroku at a custom domain.
  • How to do client side routing in a modern React application.
  • The basics of React hooks for local state management.
  • How to protect specific endpoints on an API using Auth0 with Express.
  • The IGDB (Internet Games Database) is free to use for hobby projects, and is really powerful.
  • How to set up collections on Postman to make testing various APIs nice and easy.
  • A full set of skeleton React components, ready for filling in with functionality.
  • A more thought through Entity Relationship model for the different entities, and a production ready, managed MondoDB database.

If you want to see just how Skeletal the first iteration is, see here:

I didn’t get the users search view working, so that is the first thing to do this week.

After that, my product is functionally complete, so I’ll probably start on layout/styling and maybe some automated testing.

I can already breathe pretty easy though, as I know that nothing I’m trying to do is impossible, as I have already done it.

Anything from here on out is improvements, rather than core functionality.



HTF do I move from Angular components to React components

Angular has web components.

By that I mean a modular piece of front end UI code with the following:

  • HTML template
  • TypeScript class to handle UI logic
  • Encapsulated CSS

Angular’s web components also support one way data flow via Output and Input class decorators, and dependency injection.

So how do I Reactify these concepts?

Let’s start with a basic dumb Angular Component, with a form, an input value and an output emitter, and see if we can’t shiny it up with some React:


import { Component, EventEmitter, Input, Output } from '@angular/core';
import { FormControl, FormGroup, Validators } from '@angular/forms';

export interface UsefulInformation {
  firstName: string;
  crucialInformation: string;

  selector: 'app-useful-form',
  templateUrl: './useful-form.component.html',
  styleUrls: ['./useful-form.component.css']
export class UsefulFormComponent {
  @Input() name: string;
  usefulUserInformation: EventEmitter<UsefulInformation> = new EventEmitter<

  public usefulForm: FormGroup;
  public crucialOptions = ['important', 'necessary', 'crucial'];

  constructor() {
    this.usefulForm = new FormGroup({
      number: new FormControl(, Validators.required),
      crucialInformation: new FormControl('', Validators.required)

  public submit() {


<form [formGroup]="usefulForm">
  <h2>Hello <span *ngIf="!name">person</span>{{ name }}</h2>
  <label for="number">Number</label>
    placeholder="pick a number!"
  <label for="crucialInformation">Crucial information</label>
      *ngFor="let option of crucialOptions;"
      {{ option }}

So here we have a component that can be embedded in other HTML, with an input passed in via a name field, that we’re rendering in the template, an output event that can be listened to, and a reactive form. There is also an *ngFor and and *ngIf.

The component can be used like below in a parent component:


All pretty standard stuff. Let’s try and replicate this behaviour in React.

Reactified useful component

First of all I want to roughly map some Angular concepts related to components, to their React equivalents:


import React from 'react';

export default class UsefulForm extends React.Component {
  constructor(props) {
    this.state = {
      number: '',
      crucialInformation: ''

    this.crucialOptions = ['important', 'necessary', 'crucial'];

    this.handleNumberChange = this.handleNumberChange.bind(this);
    this.handleCrucialInformationChange = this.handleCrucialInformationChange.bind(

  handleNumberChange(event) {
    this.setState({ ...this.state, number: });

  handleCrucialInformationChange(event) {
    this.setState({ ...this.state, crucialInformation: });

  render() {
    return (
      <form onSubmit={() => this.props.handleSubmit(this.state)}>
        <h1>Hello { || 'person'}</h1>
            placeholder="pick a number!"
          Crucial information:
            <option value=''>Pick option</option>
            { => <option value={option} key={option}>{option}</option>)}
          disabled={!(this.state.number && this.state.crucialInformation)}

The component is used as follows in a parent component:

class App extends Component {

  handleUsefulFormSubmit(event) {

  render() {
    return (

export default App;

What are the key differences/learnings?

  1. React seems to be much less opinionated about how you do things and more flexible. It is also JavaScript, where Angular is in many ways its own thing.
  2. Forms in React seem to require more work to achieve the same as in Angular (validation, disabled buttons, updates to form values etc.). I suspect as I mess around with this I will find some nicer patterns for handling programatic driven forms.

Overall the differences are not as great as I had feared. Both allow for controlling child components from a parent component, and flowing data into and out of the component without mutating things. Also the difference between *ngIf and *ngFor and just using interpolated JavaScript is very minimal.

I am pleasantly surprised by how much I like React so far…