I would urge front-end developers to take a step back, breathe, and reassess. Let’s stop over engineering for the sake of it. Let’s think what we can do with the basic tools, progressive enhancement and a simpler approach to building websites. There are absolutely valid usecases for SPAs, React, et al. and I’ll continue to use these tools reguarly and when it’s necessary, I’m just not sure that’s 100% of the time.
This is a bit ranty but it resonates with what I’ve been noticing lately:
I’ve discovered how many others have felt similarly, overwhelmed by the choices we have as modern developers, always feeling like there’s something we should be doing better.
Not only does the differentiation of terms create a divide within the industry, the term ‘web app’ regularly acts as an excuse for corner cutting and the exclusion of users.
We kid ourselves into thinking we’re building groundbreakingly complex systems that require bleeding-edge tools, but in reality, much of what we build is a way to render two things: a list, and a single item. Here are some users, here is a user. Here are your contacts, here are your messages with that contact. There ain’t much more to it than that.
I think we’re often guilty of assuming that because our tools are great solutions for some things, they’re automatically the solution for everything.
Let’s take a meandering waltz through what other people have to say about simplicity.
A good talk from from Chris Ferdinandi, who says:
Are many of the modern frontend tools and practices just technical debt in disguise?
Ooh, good question!
Onboarding. Reaching out. In terms of. Synergy. Bandwidth. Headcount. Forward planning. Multichannel. Going forward. We are constantly bombarded and polluted with nonsense speak. These words and phrases snag and attach themselves to our vocabulary like sticky weeds.
Words become walls.
I love this post from Ben on the value of plain language!
We’re not dumbing things down by using simple terms. We’re being smarter.
Read on for the story of the one exception that Ben makes—it’s a good one.
If there are no specific reasons to build a single-page application, I will go with a traditional server-rendered architecture every day of the week.
Living things are just a better way for nature to dissipate energy and increase the universe’s entropy.
No anthropocentric exceptionalism here; just the laws of thermodynamics.
According to the inevitable life theory, biological systems spontaneously emerge because they more efficiently disperse, or “dissipate” energy, thereby increasing the entropy of the surroundings. In other words, life is thermodynamically favorable.
As a consequence of this fact, something that seems almost magical happens, but there is nothing supernatural about it. When an inanimate system of particles, like a group of atoms, is bombarded with flowing energy (such as concentrated currents of electricity or heat), that system will often self-organize into a more complex configuration—specifically an arrangement that allows the system to more efficiently dissipate the incoming energy, converting it into entropy.
Tales of over-engineering, as experienced by Bridget. This resonates with me, and I think she’s right when she says that these things go in cycles. The pendulum always ends up swinging the other way eventually.
A really terrific piece from Garrett on the nature of the web:
Markup written almost 30 years ago runs exactly the same today as it did then without a single modification. At the same time, the platform has expanded to accommodate countless enhancements. And you don’t need a degree in computer science to understand or use the vast majority of it. Moreover, a well-constructed web page today would still be accessible on any browser ever made. Much of the newer functionality wouldn’t be supported, but the content would be accessible.
I share his concerns about the maintainability overhead introduced by new tools and frameworks:
I’d argue that for every hour these new technologies have saved me, they’ve cost me another in troubleshooting or upgrading the tool due to a web of invisible dependencies.
We assume that complex problems always require complex solutions. We try to solve complexity by inventing tools and technologies to address a problem; but in the process we create another layer of complexity that, in turn, causes its own set of issues.
The Principle of Least Power looms large over this:
Some of the most important things in the world are intentionally designed “stupid”. In any system, the potential for error directly increases with its complexity - that’s why most elections still work by putting pieces of paper in a box.
Hear, hear! And before you dismiss this viewpoint as some lawn-off-getting fist-waving from “the old guard”, bear this in mind:
This is an excellent case study!
The technical details are there if you want them, but far more important is consideration that went into every interaction. Every technical decision has a well thought out justification.
One facet of this whole CSS debate involves one side saying, “Just learn CSS” and the other side responding, “That’s what I’ve been trying to do!”
I think it’s high time we the teachers of CSS start discussing how exactly we can teach a correct mental model. How do we, in specific and practical ways, help developers get past this point of frustration. Because we have not figured out how to properly teach a mental model of CSS.
Dave on the opaqueness of toolchains:
As toolchains grow and become more complex, unless you are expertly familiar with them, it’s very unclear what transformations are happening in our code. Tracking the differences between the input and output and the processes that code underwent can be overwhelming. When there’s a problem, it’s increasingly difficult to hop into the assembly line and diagnose the issue.
There’s a connection here to one of the biggest issues with what’s currently being labelled “AI”:
In the same way AI needs some design to show its work in how it came to its final answer, I feel that our automated build tools could use some help as well.
I really like this suggestion for making the invisble visible:
I sometimes wonder if Webpack or Gulp or [Insert Your Build Tool Here] could benefit from a Scratch-like interface for buildchains.
There’s a theory that you can cure this by following standards, except there are more “standards” than there are things computers can actually do, and these standards are all variously improved and maligned by the personal preferences of the people coding them, so no collection of code has ever made it into the real world without doing a few dozen identical things a few dozen not even remotely similar ways. The first few weeks of any job are just figuring out how a program works even if you’re familiar with every single language, framework, and standard that’s involved, because standards are unicorns.
Scores of people who just want to deliver their content and have it look vaguely nice are convinced you need every web technology under the sun to deliver text.
This is very lawnoffgetting but I can relate.
I made my first website about 20 years ago and it delivered as much content as most websites today. It was more accessible, ran faster and easier to develop then 90% of the stuff you’ll read on here.
20 years later I browse the Internet with a few tabs open and I have somehow downloaded many megabytes of data, my laptop is on fire and yet in terms of actual content delivery nothing has really changed.
I know that Jeffrey and I sound like old men yelling at kids to get off the lawn when we bemoan the fetishisation of complex tools and build processes, but Jeffrey gets to the heart of it here: it’s about appropriateness.
As a designer who used to love creating web experiences in code, I am baffled and numbed by the growing preference for complexity over simplicity. Complexity is good for convincing people they could not possibly do your job. Simplicity is good for everything else.
And not to sound like a broken record, but once again I’m reminded of the rule of least power.