Contributing to Protocol

Protocol, like everything else Mozilla makes, is open source. We welcome contributions from people like you. Yes, you, dear reader, can help us make Protocol better and more useful, no matter your skill level or area of interest.

Reporting Bugs

The easiest way to help is to report bugs. Let us know if something isn’t doing what you think it should do and we can try to fix it.

To report an error you’ve discovered in Protocol, submit an issue on Github with a detailed description of the error and steps to reproduce. If possible, include a link to a live example and/or a screenshot of the bug in effect. Also be sure to mention the browser (and version) and operating system.

You should search for similar issues in case it’s already been reported. In some cases a bug may have been fixed but the fix may not have been deployed, so it’s a good idea to search through recently closed issues as well.

Requesting New Features

If you would like to request changes to a component or a new component be added to Protocol, please submit an issue on Github using the appropriate issue template. Please try to fill out this template as thoroughly as you can. This will help the team understand the request and triage issues more effectively.

Contributing Code

Aside from reporting bugs or requesting features, an even more direct way to contribute to Protocol is to write code.

Protocol is a design system, though the exact meaning of the term “design system” is hard to pin down. For our purposes, a design system comprises the entirety of guidelines, assets, and resources for producing websites in a specific style or brand identity. It includes a style guide, a pattern library of coded components, and the actual assets – fonts, graphics, CSS frameworks, JavaScript libraries – needed to create websites.

The heart of Protocol is the pattern library – the HTML components that you can assemble into a web page, and its soul is the CSS framework that styles those components. We’re probably straining that metaphor but you get the point; Protocol is made of code.

The Protocol design system comprises a CSS framework and a library of markup patterns for web page components. There’s a bit of JavaScript for a few interactive things, but for the most part Protocol is static HTML and CSS.

The pattern library lives at protocol.mozilla.org and its source code lives at github.com/mozilla/protocol. That code repository is also where the Protocol CSS framework lives, as well as all the system documentation (including this page).

To write code for Protocol you’ll actually be working on the Protocol website itself.

Installing the Protocol site locally

We’ve done our best to make the barrier of entry to contributing code to Protocol as low as possible. You can do some work directly through github without actually installing Protocol locally, but if you want to do any complex coding you’ll need to set up a local development environment.

With those prerequisites met:

  1. Fork the Protocol GitHub repository to your personal account.
  2. Clone that remote repo to your computer.
  3. On your computer’s command line, navigate to the folder to which you just cloned the Protocol repo.
  4. Within that folder, run npm install. This will install all the dependencies.
  5. Next run npm run webpack-docs. This will compile the Sass and copy assets into a local folder in preparation to run the server. It also starts a “watch” process that will watch those files and automatically recompile when they change.
  6. In another command line console (and still within the Protocol folder), run npm start. This will start your local server.

You now have a local instance of the Protocol site running on your computer. You can load the site in a browser at http://localhost:3000. As you edit files they will update automatically and you can see your changes “live” on your local development environment.

Sass and component files will reload automatically as you change them, but documentation pages written in Markdown are only processed at startup, so they require restarting the Fractal server to see the changes.

  1. Make whatever edits you need to make, ideally in a fresh branch.
  2. When you’re done, commit your changes and push them to your GitHub remote repository.
  3. Submit a pull request from your fork to the Mozilla repo.

You can also make some edits directly on github.com without installing the site locally. For that you don’t even have to install Git or Node, you just need a GitHub account. This is fine for updating docs or minor tweaks that don’t need extensive testing or review, but for any serious coding you really should have a local instance running so you can see your work as it progresses.

File structure

Once you’ve cloned the Protocol repository, you should spend some time browsing through the folders in your local copy (or on Github) to familiarize yourself with the general structure of the project. You’ll have to drill down a bit to reach the really good stuff but the top-level root folder looks something like:

protocol
├── assets (Sass, JavaScript, and font files; this is what gets published with the package)
├── bin (scripts that deploy the site to the server)
├── components (the HTML components)
├── docs (documentation pages [including this one])
├── static (media assets for display on the Protocol website, but not part of Protocol itself)
├── tests (automated test scripts)
└── theme (the custom theme for the Protocol website)

There are a few other files in the project root, mostly configurations for the documentation site and the build process, but one file to take note of is CHANGELOG.md that contains a historical record of Protocol.

The files in the components folder represent the actual Protocol components. They’re snippets of HTML that, when combined with the CSS that styles them, can be assembled to build a web page. All of the Protocol components can be found in the components folder, each organized into subfolders, and all of the related CSS and JavaScript is in assets (we’ll do a deeper dive into that folder shortly).

Component patterns

The Protocol documentation uses Fractal and component templates are build with with Nunjucks, a templating language that is mostly plain HTML with some added enhancements. Each component resides in its own Nunjucks template file (using the extension .html) along with a readme.md file (written in Markown format) with notes and documentation for that component. Many have an accompanying configuration file written in YAML providing contextual data and defining component variants.

All of this gets processed and rendered to show a live example of the component with all its variants and added documentation.

Here’s a minimal example of a Protocol component:

<button class="mzp-c-button">Button</button>

Beyond providing a single example of a component, by using a templating language like Nunjucks, these can be embedded in other component templates (and documents) using {% include %} or Fractal’s {% render %} helper. Each component can be addressed by its unique “handle” (based on the file name or defined in a configuration file):

{% render '@button' %}

For greater flexibility we can also define context variables in a component, allowing us to pass data into the template when the component is rendered elsewhere. For example, our button might contain a variable called label:

<button class="mzp-c-button"></button>

When we render that component in another template we can replace the variable with different content:

{% render '@button', { label: 'Click Me!' } %}

This is obviously an abbreviated introduction but hopefully it will help you get started. Look through the various components in Protocol for more robust examples and refer to the Fractal documentation for more about how components and component variants are created and configured.

The Protocol CSS Framework

Along with the HTML snippets that give Protocol components their structure, Protocol also comprises a CSS framework to give it style. Our framework is built with Sass as a pre-processor, and we author Sass using the SCSS syntax.

You can find our Sass files in the assets/sass/protocol folder. This is where you’ll find all the CSS that styles Protocol components as well as the variables, mixins, and functions that make it all possible.

sass/protocol
├── base
│   ├── elements
│   ├── includes
│   └── utilities
├── components
├── includes
│   ├── fonts
│   ├── forms
│   ├── mixins
│   ├── _functions.scss
|   ├── _lib.scss
|   ├── _mixins.scss
│   └── _themes.scss
├── templates
├── protocol-components.scss
└── protocol.scss

It’s a good idea to explore the files and folders here to get the lay of the land. We try to include helpful comments in each .scss file to explain what all the different pieces do and how to use them so a lot of our documentation lives directly within the source code.

Our styles are fragmented across numerous files in order to keep things more self-contained and organized, and to help prevent conflicts when several people work simultaneously on different things (when more than one person is trying to edit the same file at the same time they’ll inevitably step on each other’s work).

The base folder has all the basic, general-purpose styling for common HTML elements. The components folder holds the styling for individual Protocol components. The templates folder holds styling for page and component layouts. And the includes folder holds the supporting mixins and functions that power the entire framework.

Each of these folders in turn hold other files that import and collect the smaller fragments. Almost all of our individual SCSS files are Sass partials, prefixed with an underscore. They’re intended to be imported into another file when the Sass is compiled; they don’t all turn into separate CSS files of their own.

Styling a component

All of the styling for a given component will typically be in a single .scss file named for that component. Here’s a bare-bones example that we’ll imagine is a file named _item.scss (this is not an actual Protocol component):

@import '../includes/lib';

.mzp-c-item {
    @include text-title-md;
    color: $color-ink-80;
    margin: $spacing-lg 0;
}

Even in this minimal example there’s a lot happening, and almost none of it is plain CSS. If you’re familiar with Sass/SCSS already this will look more familiar, but if you’re not let’s dig a bit deeper.

@import '../includes/lib';

First, we import the Protocol library file, includes/_lib.scss. Since that file is a Sass partial we don’t need the underscore prefix or the file extension, just referencing the relative path and filename is enough. That library file in turn imports all of the functions, mixins, and variables Protocol needs to process the rest of this SCSS file. Almost every file you see in the Protocol framework will import that library at the very top.

.mzp-c-item {

Next we get to the proper component styles, starting with a class selector. All of our classes follow a standard naming convention. They’re namespaced with mzp to avoid conflicts with any other styling or libraries with which they may need to coexist, followed by a c prefix indicating that this is a component.

    @include text-title-md;

The first style declaration is a Sass mixin that sets the font-size for the element. We use mixins for font sizes to maintain a standardized type scale, and the mixins also include media queries to make the sizes responsive to the viewport size; bigger screens get bigger text. These sizing mixins are defined in includes/mixins/_typography.scss. See our page on typography for more about our type scale.

Next we declare the text color using a variable. Protocol has an extensive color palette, all assigned to named variables so every occurance of a given color will always be the exact same value ($color-ink-80 is a dark purplish black). You can see our entire color palette for all the different options.

    margin: $spacing-lg 0;

The next line sets margins above and below the element, once again using a named variable instead of an explicit value. Assigning variables to spacing units means we ensure consistency throughout the system, and also lets us change the value of such a variable in one place and it will automatically propagate to every other part of Protocol. The $spacing-lg variable is 24px but if we want to change that to 20px we would only have to make that change once.

Design Tokens

The example above shows a Sass variable used as a margin value. We call variables like these design tokens and they’re more than just variables. Design tokens are a way to document the lowest level design attributes and share them throughout a complex system, and even across multiple systems. We use tokens as much as possible in place of hard-coded values, especially for colors and units of measure. Whenever you need a basic value in CSS, see if there’s already a token for it. You can see a list of all the design tokens in Protocol.

Tokens are also a partial abstraction of the value they represent. Assigning a name to a token also implies a particular purpose a step removed from its specific value. A token like $spacing-md represents “a medium unit of space” and we don’t necessarily need to think about exactly how many pixels that is, we only know it’s a bit larger than small and a bit smaller than large. For now we’ve decided that a medium space is 16px, but that could easily change to 12px or 20px because “medium” is relative. Avoid misusing a token as an alias for its specific value since the whole point is that the value can change.

Also avoid misusing a token to fill in a value for something it wasn’t made for. For example, the token $spacing-md is intended for spacing within or between elements. Don’t use it set the height of an image or width of a border or size of a font (unless there’s a very good reason to do so).

(Side note: The $spacing-* tokens are smaller units, mostly for interior spacing inside components or between close elements. The $layout-* tokens are larger, intended for wider gaps between components on the page.)

Protocol’s design tokens reside in their own repository and are published as their own package.