Folks, this is not okay. Our industry is characterized by institutional recklessness and a callous lack of empathy for our users.
A great tool is not a universal tool it’s a tool well suited to a specific problem.
The more universal a solution someone claims to have to whatever software engineering problem exists, and the more confident they are that it is a fully generalized solution, the more you should question them.
Progressive enhancement in meatspace:
IRL progressive enhancement is quite common when you think of it. You can board planes with paper boarding cards, but also with technology like QR codes and digital wallets. You can pay for a coffee with cash, card or phone. The variety serves diverse sets of people. Just like in web development, not dismissing the baseline lets us cover use cases we didn’t know existed. It is fragile, though: some manager somewhere probably has a fantasy about replacing everything with fancy tech and fancy tech only.
Many, if not all, of our world’s most wicked problems are rooted in the excessive hiding of complexity behind illusions of simplicity—the relentless shielding of messy details in favor of easy-to-use interfaces.
But there’s always a tradeoff between complexity, truth, and control. The more details are hidden, the harder it is to understand how the system actually works. (And the harder it is to control). The map becomes less and less representative of the territory. We often trade completeness and control for simplicity. We’d rather have a map that’s easy to navigate than a map that shows us every single detail about the territory. We’d rather have a simple user interface than an infinitely flexible one that exposes a bunch of switches and settings. We don’t want to have to think too hard. We just want to get where we’re going.
Seamful and seamless design are reframed here as ethical and deceptive design:
Ethical design is like a glove. It obscures the underlying structure (i.e. your hand) but preserves some truth about its shape and how it works. Deceptive design is like a mitten. It obscures the underlying structure and also hides a lot about its shape and how it works.
The problem with developing front end projects isn’t that it’s harder or more complicated, it’s that you made it harder and more complicated.
Web development did not change. Web development grew. There are more options now, not different options.
You choose complexity. You can also choose simplicity.
The right coding language, system architecture, or interface design will vary wildly from project to project. But there are characteristics particular to software that consistently cause traditional management practices to fail, while allowing small startups to succeed with a shoestring budget:
- Reusing good software is easy; it is what allows you to build good things quickly;
- Software is limited not by the amount of resources put into building it, but by how complex it can get before it breaks down; and
- The main value in software is not the code produced, but the knowledge accumulated by the people who produced it.
Understanding these characteristics may not guarantee good outcomes, but it does help clarify why so many projects produce bad outcomes. Furthermore, these lead to some core operating principles that can dramatically improve the chances of success:
- Start as simple as possible;
- Seek out problems and iterate; and
- Hire the best engineers you can.
Another nice alternative to Google Analytics with a focus on privacy.
More on battling entropy:
Ever needed to change “just a small thing” on an old page you build years ago? I recently had the pleasure and the simple task of changing some colors in CSS lead to a whole day of me wrangling with old deprecated Grunt tasks and trying to get the build task running.
I like this mindset:
Be boring by default and enhance on the way.
My name is Jeremy Keith and I endorse this message:
I love the modern JS platform (the stuff the browser does for you), and hate modern JS tooling.
This post really highlights one of the biggest issues with the convoluted build tools used for “modern” web development. If you return to a project after any length of time, this is what awaits:
I find entropy staring me back in the face: library updates, breaking API changes, refactored mental models, and possible downright obsolescence. An incredible amount of effort will be required to make a simple change, test it, and get it live.
Take a moment and think about this super power: if you write vanilla HTML, CSS, and JS, all you have to do is put that code in a web browser and it runs. Edit a file, refresh the page, you’ve got a feedback cycle. As soon as you introduce tooling, as soon as you introduce an abstraction not native to the browser, you may have to invent the universe for a feedback cycle.
Maintainability matters—if not for you, then for future you.
The more I author code as it will be run by the browser the easier it will be to maintain that code over time, despite its perceived inferior developer ergonomics (remember, developer experience encompasses both the present and the future, i.e. “how simple are the ergonomics to build this now and maintain it into the future?) I don’t mind typing some extra characters now if it means I don’t have to learn/relearn, setup, configure, integrate, update, maintain, and inevitably troubleshoot a build tool or framework later.
Employing the principle of least power for better digital preservation:
New frameworks and technologies spring up to try and cope with the speed of change. More and more ways to build and release things faster and cheaper becomes the norm. And, the more this happens, the more we deviate from standards: good ol’ HTML and CSS.
I’m glad I have this site to play with things, almost all web development and ‘front-end’ stuff leaves me cold these days. It’s all so process driven, so full of unnecessary complexities and dependencies, it’s as if the entire industry wants you to forget you can write HTML by hand and upload it somewhere and it’s a working website. It’s complexity for complexity’s sake, like what accountancy software companies did to the tax code: “Oh this is too complex you need to pay us lots of money to sort it out.” Annoying. I can see some resistance to it and there are still people making blogs and playing around with stuff, so hopefully the professional professionals will calm the fuck down at some point.
The removal of all friction should’t be a goal. Making things easy and making things hard should be a design tool, employed to aid the end user towards their loftiest goals.
An ode to the network architecture of the internet:
I believe the DNA of resiliency built into the network manifests itself in the building blocks of what’s transmitted over the network. The next time somebody calls HTML or CSS dumb, think about that line again:
That simplicity, almost an intentional brainlessness…is a key to its adaptability.
It’s not a bug. It’s a feature.
Yes! I wish more web developers would take cues from the very medium they’re building atop of.
This is about seamful design.
We need to know things better if we want to be better.
It’s also about progressive enhancement.
Highly sophisticated systems work flawlessly, as long as things go as expected.
When a problem occurs which hasn’t been anticipated by the designers, those systems are prone to fail. The more complex the systems are, the higher are the chances that things go wrong. They are less resilient.
Most experienced designers want concision—clear, robust, consistent, elegant systems that avoid redundancy. Concise designs are smoother to implement, faster to render, quicker to understand, and easier to hand-off and maintain. Achieving a simplicity with clarity means that you’re engaging with the fundamentals of the problem (and of your craft) at the correct fidelity. You’ve cut through complexity with insight, understanding, and committed decision-making. That third one is critical. A lot of complexity comes from an unwillingness to commit to the things that insight and understanding surface.
Geocities, LiveJournal, what.cd, now Yahoo Groups. One day, Medium, Twitter, and even hosting services like GitHub Pages will be plundered then discarded when they can no longer grow or cannot find a working business model.
Considering the needs of someone who wants to make and maintain a website, without the ridiculous complexity of “modern” web tooling:
How do we make web content that can last and be maintained for at least 10 years? As someone studying human-computer interaction, I naturally think of the stakeholders we aren’t supporting. Right now putting up web content is optimized for either the professional web developer (who use the latest frameworks and workflows) or the non-tech savvy user (who use a platform).
I feel my trajectory as a musician maps to the trajectory of the web industry. The web is still young. We’re all still figuring stuff out and we’re all eager to get better. In our eagerness to get better, we’re reaching for more complexity. More complex abstractions, build processes, and tools. Because who wants to be bored playing in 4/4 when you can be playing in 7/16?
I hope we in the web field will arrive at the same realization that I did as a musician: complexity is not synonymous with quality.
Can I get an “Amen!”?