Can you feel the energy?
Rather than thinking, “how do I combine a bunch of disparate content, templates, and tooling into a functioning website?”, you might think “how do I start at a functioning website with content and then use templates and build tooling to enhance it?”
I think Jim is onto something here. The more dependencies you have in your build process, the likelier it is that over time one of them will become a single point of failure. A progressive enhancement approach to build tools means you’d still be able to launch your site (even if it’s not in its ideal state).
I want to be able to view, edit, and if need be ship a website, even if the build process fails. In essence, if the build does fail I can still take all the source files, put them on a server, and the website remains functional (however crude).
If you rely on Word, Evernote or Notion, for example, then you can’t work unless you have Word, Evernote, or Notion. You are helpless without them. You are dependent.
But if you only use plain text, you can use any program on any device, forever. It gives great flexibility and peace of mind.
Folks, this is not okay. Our industry is characterized by institutional recklessness and a callous lack of empathy for our users.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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!”?
Worlds of scarcity are made out of things. Worlds of abundance are made out of dependencies. That’s the software playbook: find a system made of costly, redundant objects; and rearrange it into a fast, frictionless system made of logical dependencies. The delta in performance is irresistible, and dependencies are a compelling building block: they seem like just a piece of logic, with no cost and no friction. But they absolutely have a cost: the cost is complexity, outsourced agency, and brittleness. The cost of ownership is up front and visible; the cost of access is back-dated and hidden.
The transcript of Andy’s talk from this year’s State Of The Browser conference.
I don’t think using scale as an excuse for over-engineering stuff—especially CSS—is acceptable, even for huge teams that work on huge products.