Putting design principles into action
I was really looking forward to speaking at An Event Apart this year. I was going to be on the line-up for Seattle, Boston, and Minneapolis; three cities I really like.
At the start of the year, I decided to get a head-start on my new talk so I wouldn’t be too stressed out when the first event approached. I spent most of January and February going through the chaotic process of assembling a semi-coherent presentation out of a katamari of vague thoughts.
I was making good progress. Then The Situation happened. One by one, the in-person editions of An Event Apart were cancelled (quite rightly). But my talk preparation hasn’t been in vain. I’ll be presenting my talk at an online edition of An Event Apart on Monday, August 17th.
You should attend. Not for my talk, but for Ire’s talk on Future-Proof CSS which sounds like it was made for me:
In this talk, we’ll cover how to write CSS that stands the test of time. From progressive enhancement techniques to accessibility considerations, we’ll learn how to write CSS for 100 years in the future (and, of course, today).
My talk will be about design principles …kinda. As usual, it will be quite a rambling affair. At this point I almost take pride in evoking a reaction of “where’s he going with this?” during the first ten minutes of a talk.
When I do actually get around to the point of the talk—design principles—I ask whether it’s possible to have such a thing as universal principles. After all, the whole point of design principles is that they’re specific to an endeavour, whether that’s a company, an organisation, or a product.
I think that some principles are, if not universal, then at least very widely applicable. I’ve written before about two of my favourites: the robustness principle and the principle of least power:
There’s no shortage of principles, laws, and rules out there, and I find many of them very useful, but if I had to pick just two that are particularly applicable to my work, they would be the robustness principle and the rule of least of power.
What’s interesting about both of those principles is that they are imperative. They tell you how to act:
Be conservative in what you send, be liberal in what you accept.
Choose the least powerful language suitable for a given purpose.
Other princples are imperative, but they tell you what not to do. Take the razors of Occam and Hanlon, for example:
Entities are not to be multiplied without necessity.
Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.
But these imperative principles are exceptions. The vast majority of “universal” principles take the form of laws that are observations. They describe the state of the world without providing any actions to take.
There’s Hofstadter’s Law, for example:
It always takes longer than you expect, even when you take into account Hofstadter’s Law.
Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.
By themselves, these observational laws are interesting but they leave it up to you to decide on a course of action. On the other hand, imperative principles tell you what to do but don’t tell you why.
It strikes me that it could be fun (and useful) to pair up observational and imperative principles:
Because of observation A, apply action B.
Because of Murphy’s Law, apply the principle of least power.
Or in its full form:
Because anything that can go wrong will go wrong, choose the least powerful language suitable for a given purpose.
I feel like the Jevons paradox is another observational principle that should inform our work on the web:
The Jevons paradox occurs when technological progress increases the efficiency with which a resource is used, but the rate of consumption of that resource rises because of increasing demand.
This problem would be addressed if web developers were more conservative in what they sent. The robustness principle in action.
Because of the Jevons paradox, apply the robustness principle.
Admittedly, the expanded version of that is far too verbose:
Because technological progress increases the efficiency with which a resource is used, but the rate of consumption of that resource rises because of increasing demand, be conservative in what you send, be liberal in what you accept.
I’m sure there are more and better pairings to be made: an observational principle to tell you why you should take action, and an imperative principle to tell you what action you should take.