Quick prototyping plays a vital role in the development process of new projects. It allows for quicker iterations and faster learning, enabling developers to make changes and refine their ideas quickly. When building prototypes, it is often necessary to make trade-offs such as sacrificing security or scalability in favor of speed and agility. This means that the focus is on being able to make changes quickly, from the frontend and design to the database structure, without having to worry about certain constraints.

We at Subvisual have been building prototypes for a long time with many different tech stacks, more famously (I think) with Ruby/Rails and Elixir/Phoenix. Over the years we've seen success in using Rails and Phoenix for this purpose. However, in an effort to continuously innovate and improve, we have been exploring other technology stacks and one that stood out to me includes Elixir, Phoenix, LiveView, Surface, and Tailwind. This new stack offers new possibilities for rapid prototyping and I'm personally very excited to see what results it will yield.

Why Elixir and Phoenix?

We've been using Elixir for many years in different capacities, to build various types of applications, although mostly not with this particular stack, since a lot of our projects end up having a React frontend. Personally I'm quite the fan of Elixir and the Actor Model, which is a big reason to reach for LiveView, because it gives Elixir everywhere. One of the tradeoffs made by Elixir is a lack of a strong type system, which you can mitigate by using typespecs, but if you want to rely heavily on types and a compiler, there's other options. Since there are many resources available that explain what each of these technologies is, I don't want to go into too much detail here.

A reason to choose Phoenix, other than what I already mentioned about Elixir, is that it is not only a quite robust web framework with a lot of extensibility, but also it was built around the concept of channels. Channels are basically a wrapper for websockets and the technology that makes LiveView possible.

Are LiveViews really that cool?

The short answer is yes, if that's enough for you, move on to the next section. For those that decided to stay, LiveViews are a unique feature of Phoenix that provide a way to create rich, real-time user experiences in web applications. This is made possible by leveraging Phoenix's Channels, a websocket wrapper, and the underlying understanding of Elixir processes. While LiveViews share some similarities with React, such as the ability to have a LiveView with co-located templates and the capability to re-render the relevant parts upon updates to the socket variables, there are significant differences. One key difference is that the updates happen through websockets and require minimal to no JavaScript coding, as the LiveView runs on the server side, giving direct access to all the code and data without the need for an API. Choosing to use LiveViews over other approaches has its tradeoffs, but in the context of prototyping speed, the absence of an API makes it a clear choice.

Moreover, as LiveViews continue to evolve, there have been new concepts such as LiveComponents or Components that aim to improve usability and reusability, similar to React components. Here's an example of what a LiveComponent look like:

defmodule CardComponent do
  use Phoenix.LiveComponent

  def render(assigns) do
    <form phx-submit="update_title" phx-target={@myself}>
      <input name="title"><%= @card.title %></input>


The assigns represents the properties you have access to on the template, which are you can access with @, which is some syntactic sugar. In this case the template is in the component module, but you can easily have it in its own file as well. An important part of this example is the phx-submit property, which defines the event that is triggered when the form is submitted. Here's how that could work:

def handle_event("update_title", %{"title" => title}, socket) do
  updated_card = %{socket.assigns.card | title: title}

  socket =
    |> assign(:card, updated_card)

  {:noreply, socket}

By updating the card in the assigns in the socket, when this component re-render (which will happen because of the {:noreply, socket} message being sent), the new title will show up in the page.

All of this is backed by a WebSocket connection and has been highly optimised to transmit as little data as possible in the messages through that socket. This is happening under the hood and you don't really have to worry about it, but if you're interested, here's a good presentation by Chris McCord, the creator of Phoenix.

Depending on the specifics of what you're building, you may choose to break it down into components or not. However, in general, breaking it down into components can provide benefits, even though the ergonomics of doing so with LiveViews have been improving over time, I still believe that LiveViews can be further improved and this is where Surface comes in.


Surface is a tool that can be used to enhance the experience of working with LiveViews in Phoenix. It positions itself as a server-side rendering component library for Phoenix, but it can also be thought of as a layer that adds extra functionality and convenience to LiveView. The developers behind Surface have been working hard to make the experience of using LiveViews as smooth as possible, especially for those who have prior experience with React or similar frontend frameworks. Over the past few years, the work done by Surface has had a significant impact on the evolution of LiveView and Phoenix, making the platform more accessible and user-friendly.

Taking the example from above and rewriting it in Surface would look something like this:

defmodule CardComponent do
  use Surface.LiveComponent

  alias Surface.Components.Form
  alias Surface.Components.Form.TextInput

  data card, :struct

  def render(assigns) do
    <Form submit="update_title">
      <TextInput name="title">{ @card.title }</TextInput>


Even in this contrived example we can already see some differences. Note how we use Surface components that are wrappers around Phoenix HTML helpers that add some nicities, such as taking events as props, so we don't need the phx prefix, or the fact that the target of an event is the "closest" LiveComponent or LiveView in the tree of components, as opposed to defaulting to the parent LiveView, forcing you to define a phx-target.

Another thing of note is the data assign, which allows Surface to know a bit more about the type of data in the assigns map, which turns leads to it being able to add some static validations and syntactic sugar based on their type and options. It also makes it easier to understand at a glance what information a component holds.

The handle_event function would remain pretty much the same in this situation.

While it is possible to achieve similar development speeds with just LiveView, I personally prefer the added benefits that Surface offers. As mentioned, these benefits include static validations on component properties, and event handling at the component level instead of the parent view. Whether or not to use Surface is a debatable topic and ultimately comes down to personal preference and the specific needs of the project being developed.

Styling with Tailwind

Tailwind provides a set of pre-designed, ready-to-use CSS classes that can be quickly and easily applied to HTML elements. There have been countless debates about this approach to CSS compared to others, and while I won't delve into that discussion here, it's worth noting that in the context of rapid prototyping, I believe it saves time and effort compared to writing custom CSS from scratch, and helps ensure a consistent look and feel across a website or application. In addition, Tailwind's utility-first approach prioritizes functional styles, such as positioning and spacing, over visual styles, like colors and fonts, making it easier to create quick prototypes and make changes on the fly.

While the increased verbosity of the HTML files may be a concern, I actually think it makes the code easier to manage and maintain. The styling is tightly integrated with the markup, so there are no separate CSS files to keep track of. This also makes it easier to make changes to the look and feel of the site, as you can see the effects of your modifications right in the HTML code.

  <label for="price" class="block text-sm font-medium text-gray-700"
  <div class="relative mt-1 rounded-md shadow-sm">
      class="pointer-events-none absolute inset-y-0 left-0 flex items-center pl-3"
      <span class="text-gray-500 sm:text-sm">$</span>
      class="block w-full rounded-md border-gray-300 pl-7 pr-12 focus:border-indigo-500 focus:ring-indigo-500 sm:text-sm"

In this example we are building an input group for prices, that has a dollar symbol and the actual input. Clearly this would be less verbose if we had a specific class for each element, but the more I work with Tailwind, the more I come to appreaciate how easy it is to understand, update or copy a style.

Another advantage of Tailwind is its straightforward integration with Phoenix. With the library available to help set everything up, you can have Tailwind integrated into your Phoenix project in no time. This saves you the hassle of having to manually configure and manage the CSS framework, and lets you focus on building the core functionality of your application.

Overall, Tailwind's utility-first approach and easy integration with Phoenix make it a valuable tool for rapid prototyping and efficient web development.


The purpose of this article is to introduce a tech stack for quick prototyping that may be new or unfamiliar to you. This is especially relevant for those with experience in Elixir, who want to simplify the process by avoiding the complexity of a frontend framework. The proposed tech stack is also beneficial for small teams who are working on the same repository or project, as it minimizes the number of components and files that need to be modified when changes are required.

In addition to proposing a tech stack, this article aims to raise awareness about the underutilized potential of prototyping as a tool for product development. It's important to note that there is no mention of automated tests, as I believe that in this context, these should only be used when they contribute to a better understanding of the work at hand. Automated tests should not be a goal in and of themselves, especially since most, if not all, of the prototype code is typically discarded once enough information has been gathered.