Tags: complexity



Monday, May 10th, 2021

Building a resilient frontend using progressive enhancement - Service Manual - GOV.UK

Using progressive enhancement means your users will be able to do what they need to do if any part of the stack fails.

What a terrific short guide to sensible web development!

  • Start with HTML
    • Using interactive elements
    • Adding the extras
    • Building more complex services
    • Testing your service
    • Do not assume users turn off CSS or JavaScript
    • Case studies and related guides

Saturday, April 3rd, 2021

Principles and the English language

I work with words. Sometimes they’re my words. Sometimes they’re words that my colleagues have written:

One of my roles at Clearleft is “content buddy.” If anyone is writing a talk, or a blog post, or a proposal and they want an extra pair of eyes on it, I’m there to help.

I also work with web technologies, usually front-of-the-front-end stuff. HTML, CSS, and JavaScript. The technologies that users experience directly in web browsers.

I think a lot about design principles for the web. The two principles I keep coming back to are the robustness principle and the principle of least power.

When it comes to words, the guide that I return to again and again is George Orwell, specifically his short essay, Politics and the English Language.

Towards the end, he offers some rules for writing.

  1. Never use a metaphor, simile, or other figure of speech which you are used to seeing in print.
  2. Never use a long word where a short one will do.
  3. If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.
  4. Never use the passive where you can use the active.
  5. Never use a foreign phrase, a scientific word, or a jargon word if you can think of an everyday English equivalent.
  6. Break any of these rules sooner than say anything outright barbarous.

These look a lot like design principles. Not only that, but some of them look like specific design principles. Take the robustness principle:

Be conservative in what you send, be liberal in what you accept.

That first part applies to Orwell’s third rule:

If it is possible to cut a word out, always cut it out.

Be conservative in what words you send.

Then there’s the principle of least power:

Choose the least powerful language suitable for a given purpose.

Compare that to Orwell’s second rule:

Never use a long word where a short one will do.

That could be rephrased as:

Choose the shortest word suitable for a given purpose.

Or, going in the other direction, the principle of least power could be rephrased in Orwell’s terms as:

Never use a powerful language where a simple language will do.

Oh, I like that! I like that a lot.

Wednesday, March 31st, 2021

Design as (un)ethical illusion

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.

Thursday, February 11th, 2021

The web didn’t change; you did

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.

Yes! THIS!

Web development did not change. Web development grew. There are more options now, not different options.

You choose complexity. You can also choose simplicity.

Wednesday, February 10th, 2021

I don’t want to do front-end anymore

I can relate to the sentiment.

Starting a new project? Make sure to write your project idea down because by the time you are finished setting up the vast boilerplate you have probably forgotten it.

Monday, February 1st, 2021

How to Build Good Software

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:

  1. Start as simple as possible;
  2. Seek out problems and iterate; and
  3. Hire the best engineers you can.

Tuesday, December 8th, 2020

What Makes CSS Hard To Master - Tim Severien

CSS is simple, but not easy.

If we, as a community, start to appreciate the complexity of writing CSS, perhaps we can ask for help instead of blaming the language when we’re confused or stuck. We might also stop looking down on CSS specialists.

Monday, October 19th, 2020

Boring by default

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.

The solution:

That’s why starting with HTML, CSS and JavaScript without the need to ever compile anything on your local machine is a good idea. Changing some colors on such a page would indeed only take minutes and not a whole day.

I like this mindset:

Be boring by default and enhance on the way.

Friday, October 16th, 2020

The (extremely) loud minority - Andy Bell

Dev perception:

It’s understandable to think that JavaScript frameworks and their communities are eating the web because places like Twitter are awash with very loud voices from said communities.

Always remember that although a subset of the JavaScript community can be very loud, they represent a paltry portion of the web as a whole.

Tuesday, October 13th, 2020

Modern JS is amazing. Modern JS is trash. | Go Make Things

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.

Monday, October 12th, 2020

Cheating Entropy with Native Web Technologies - Jim Nielsen’s Weblog

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.

Always bet on HTML:

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.

Thursday, October 8th, 2020

The Widening Responsibility for Front-End Developers | CSS-Tricks

Chris shares his thoughts on the ever-widening skillset required of a so-called front-end developer.

Interestingly, the skillset he mentions half way through (which is what front-end devs used to need to know) really appeals to me: accessibility, performance, responsiveness, progressive enhancement. But the list that covers modern front-end dev sounds more like a different mindset entirely: APIs, Content Management Systems, business logic …the back of the front end.

And Chris doesn’t even touch on the build processes that front-end devs are expected to be familiar with: version control, build pipelines, package management, and all that crap.

I wish we could return to this:

The bigger picture is that as long as the job is building websites, front-enders are focused on the browser.

Thursday, October 1st, 2020

What is happening to our digital archives?

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.

Wednesday, September 30th, 2020

Aegir.org | Canvassing

Strong same:

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.

Saturday, September 26th, 2020

On not choosing WordPress for the W3C redesign project - Working in the open with W3C and Studio 24

The use of React complicates front-end build. We have very talented front-end developers, however, they are not React experts - nor should they need to be. I believe front-end should be built as standards-compliant HTML/CSS with JavaScript used to enrich functionality where necessary and appropriate.

Thursday, September 24th, 2020

The failed promise of Web Components – Lea Verou

A spot-on summary of where we’ve ended up with web components.

Web Components had so much potential to empower HTML to do more, and make web development more accessible to non-programmers and easier for programmers.

But then…

Somewhere along the way, the space got flooded by JS frameworks aficionados, who revel in complex APIs, overengineered build processes and dependency graphs that look like the roots of a banyan tree.

Alas, that’s true. Lea wonders how this can be fixed:

I’m not sure if this is a design issue, or a documentation issue.

I worry that is a cultural issue.

Using a custom element from the directory often needs to be preceded by a ritual of npm flugelhorn, import clownshoes, build quux, all completely unapologetically because “here is my truckload of dependencies, yeah, what”.

Monday, September 21st, 2020

The web we left behind by Kyle Jacobson (ESNEXT 2020) - YouTube

This is such an excellent presentation! It really resonates with me.

Kyle Jacobson is a developer who’s been working with the web for over 10 years, and he talks about lessons from the past that can make the future of the web not only easier to develop using battle-tested technologies, but also one friendlier for humans.

The web we left behind by Kyle Jacobson (ESNEXT 2020)

Monday, September 14th, 2020

The tangled webs we weave - daverupert.com

So my little mashup, which was supposed to be just 3 technologies ended up exposing me to ~20 different technologies and had me digging into nth-level dependency source code after midnight.

The technologies within technologies that Dave lists here is like emptying a bag of scrabble pieces.

The “modern” web stack really is quite something—we’ve done an amazing job of taking relatively straightforward tasks and making them complicated, over-engineered, and guaranteed to be out of date in no time at all.

The plumbing and glue code are not my favorite parts of the job. And often, you don’t truly know the limitations of any given dependency until you’re five thousand lines of code into a project. Massive sunk costs and the promise of rapid application development can come screeching to a halt when you run out of short cuts.

Monday, September 7th, 2020

Kokorobot — leanerweb

The problem is that most websites will adapt to the ever faster connections, which makes them gradually inaccessible for people with slower connections. Today, most websites are impossible to download with a dial-up connection, because they have become too corpulent.

This speaks to me:

Everything we do to make it harder to create a website or edit a web page, and harder to learn to code by viewing source, promotes that consumerist vision of the web.

Pretending that one needs a team of professionals to put simple articles online will become a self-fulfilling prophecy. Overcomplicating the web means lifting up the ladder that used to make it possible for people to teach themselves and surprise everyone with unexpected new ideas.

There’s a list of links at the end of this piece to help you reach this goal:

It is vital that the web stay participatory. That means not just making sites small enough so the whole world can visit them, but small enough so that people can learn to build their own, by example. Bloat makes the web inaccessible.