Tags: complexity



Saturday, February 24th, 2018

Complexity | CSS-Tricks

We talk about complexity, but it’s all opt-in. A wonderfully useful (and simple) website of a decade ago remains wonderfully useful and simple. Fortunately for all involved, the web, thus far, has taken compatibility quite seriously. Old websites don’t just break.

Sunday, February 11th, 2018

Seva Zaikov - Single Page Application Is Not a Silver Bullet

Harsh (but fair) assessment of the performance costs of doing everything on the client side.

Saturday, February 10th, 2018

Make me think! – Prototypr

Maybe being able to speak a foreign language is more fun than using a translation software.

Whenever we are about to substitute a laborious activity such as learning a language, cooking a meal, or tending to plants with a — deceptively — simple solution, we might always ask ourselves: Should the technology grow — or the person using it?

See, this is what I’m talking about—seamlessness is not, in my opinion, a desirable goal for its own sake. Every augmentation is also an amputation.

Some questions for us to ask ourselves as we design and build:

  • Empowerment: Who’s having the fun?
  • Resilience: Does it make us more vulnerable?
  • Empathy: What is the impact of simplification on others?

Friday, February 9th, 2018

Everything Easy is Hard Again – Frank Chimero

I wonder if I have twenty years of experience making websites, or if it is really five years of experience, repeated four times.

I saw Frank give this talk at Mirror Conf last year and it resonated with me so so much. I’ve been looking forward to him publishing the transcript ever since. If you’re anything like me, this will read as though it’s coming from directly inside your head.

In one way, it is easier to be inexperienced: you don’t have to learn what is no longer relevant. Experience, on the other hand, creates two distinct struggles: the first is to identify and unlearn what is no longer necessary (that’s work, too). The second is to remain open-minded, patient, and willing to engage with what’s new, even if it resembles a new take on something you decided against a long time ago.

I could just keep quoting the whole thing, because it’s all brilliant, but I’ll stop with one more bit about the increasing complexity of build processes and the decreasing availability of a simple view source:

Illegibility comes from complexity without clarity. I believe that the legibility of the source is one of the most important properties of the web. It’s the main thing that keeps the door open to independent, unmediated contributions to the network. If you can write markup, you don’t need Medium or Twitter or Instagram (though they’re nice to have). And the best way to help someone write markup is to make sure they can read markup.

Wednesday, November 29th, 2017

Over-engineering is under-engineering – Baldur Bjarnason

Following on from that link about the battle between control vs. using what the browser already gives you, Baldur sums up the situation:

To pick a specific example: the problem with an over-engineered form is that the amount of code required to replace no engineering (i.e. native form controls with basic styling) is enormous and almost always only partially successful (i.e. under-engineered).

They are under-engineered because they are over-engineered—tried to replace native controls.

And so we get two schools of engineering thought:

  1. Keep it simple.
  2. Control everything, even though that means reimplementing everything in JavaScript.

If, as it’s starting to look like from my perspective, these two communities are incapable of learning from each other, then maybe we should start consider some sort of community divorce?

We get HTML, CSS, and SVG. We love that shit and you just keep stuffing it into the JavaScript sack whenever you are left alone with it.

You get to keep WebGL, Shadow DOM, WASM, React, and Angular.

(I know which group I’d rather be in.)

Friday, November 24th, 2017

Swimming in Complexity – James Box at UX Brighton 2017 - YouTube

Boxman’s talk about complexity, reasoning, philosophy, and design is soooo good!

Swimming in Complexity – James Box at UX Brighton 2017

Wednesday, November 15th, 2017

Eric’s Archived Thoughts: Declining Complexity in CSS

I think Eric is absolutely right. The barrier to entry for accomplishing what you want with CSS is much lower now. It only seems more complicated if you’re used to doing things the old way.

I envy “the kids”, the ones just starting to learn front end now. They’re likely never going to know the pain of float drop, or wrestling with inline blocks, or not being able to center along one axis. They’re going to roll their eyes when we old-timers start grumbling about the old days and say, “Floats?!? Who ever thought floats would be a good way to lay out a page? That’s totally not what they’re for, anyone can see that! Were you all high as a kite, or just utterly stupid?” You know, the way “the kids” talked ten years ago, except then it was about using tables for layout.

Friday, October 27th, 2017

Transpiled for-of Loops are Bad for the Client - daverupert.com

This story is just a personal reminder for me to repeatedly question what our tools spit out. I don’t want to be the neophobe in the room but I sometimes wonder if we’re living in a collective delusion that the current toolchain is great when it’s really just morbidly complex. More JavaScript to fix JavaScript concerns the hell out of me.

Yes! Even if you’re not interested in the details of Dave’s story of JavaScript optimisation, be sure to read his conclusion.

I am responsible for the code that goes into the machine, I do not want to shirk the responsibility of what comes out. Blind faith in tools to fix our problems is a risky choice. Maybe “risky” is the wrong word, but it certainly seems that we move the cost of our compromises to the client and we, speaking from personal experience, rarely inspect the results.

Wednesday, September 6th, 2017

The Law of Least Power and Defunct StackOverflow Answers - Web Directions

I love John’s long-zoom look at web development. Step back far enough and you can start to see the cycles repeating.

Underneath all of these patterns and practices and frameworks and libraries are core technologies. And underlying principles.

These are foundations – technological, and of practice – that we ignore, overlook, or flaunt at our peril.

Tuesday, July 18th, 2017


Last month I went to CSS Day in Amsterdam, as an attendee this year, not a speaker. It was an excellent conference comprising the titular CSS day and a Browser API Special the day before.

By the end of CSS Day, my brain was full. Experiencing the depth of knowledge that’s contained in CSS now made me appreciate how powerful a language it is. I mean, the basics of CSS—selectors, properties, and values—can be grasped in a day. But you can spend a lifetime trying to master the details. Heck, you could spend a lifetime trying to master just one part of CSS, like layout, or text. And there would always be more to learn.

Unlike a programming language that requires knowledge of loops, variables, and other concepts, CSS is pretty easy to pick up. Maybe it’s because of this that it has gained the reputation of being simple. It is simple in the sense of “not complex”, but that doesn’t mean it’s easy. Mistaking “simple” for “easy” will only lead to heartache.

I think that’s what’s happened with some programmers coming to CSS for the first time. They’ve heard it’s simple, so they assume it’s easy. But then when they try to use it, it doesn’t work. It must be the fault of the language, because they know that they are smart, and this is supposed to be easy. So they blame the language. They say it’s broken. And so they try to “fix” it by making it conform to a more programmatic way of thinking.

I can’t help but think that they would be less frustrated if they would accept that CSS is not easy. Simple, yes, but not easy. Using CSS at scale has a learning curve, just like any powerful technology. The way to deal with that is not to hammer the technology into a different shape, but to get to know it, understand it, and respect it.

Monday, May 22nd, 2017

Are we making the web too complicated? | Seldo.Com Blog

Laurie Voss on the trade-off between new powerful web dev tools, and the messiness that abusing those tools can bring:

Is modern web development fearsomely, intimidatingly complicated? Yes, and that’s a problem. Will we make it simpler? Definitely, but probably not as soon as you’d like. Is all this new complexity worthwhile? Absolutely.

I agree that there’s bound to be inappropriate use of technologies, but I don’t agree that we should just accept it:

Are there some people using a huge pile of JavaScript and a monstrous build chain to throw together a single-pager web site with one box that collects an email address? For sure. And that’s silly and unnecessary. But so what? The misuse of technology does not invalidate it.

I think we can raise our standards. Inappropriate use of technology might have been forgivable ten years ago, but if we want web development to be taken seriously as a discipline, I think we should endeavour to use our tools and technologies appropriately.

But we can all agree that the web is a wonderful thing:

Nobody but nobody loves the web more than I do. It’s my baby. And like a child, it’s frustrating to watch it struggle and make mistakes. But it’s amazing to watch it grow up.

Saturday, February 4th, 2017

The Computational Foundation of Life | Quanta Magazine

Philip Ball certainly has a way with words.

Friday, January 6th, 2017

Designing Systems: Theory, Practice, and the Unfortunate In-between / Paul Robert Lloyd

Paul is turning his excellent talk on design systems into a three part series. Here’s part one, looking at urban planning from Brasília to London.

Sunday, July 24th, 2016

Stop the overuse of overflow menus — Medium

The trouble with overflow menus is that you didn’t actually take anything away, you just obnoxiously obfuscated it.

Words of warning and advice from Daniel.

Instead of prioritizing, we just sweep complexity under the rug and pretend that it doesn’t exist.

Wednesday, January 20th, 2016

Why I love working with the web

I love this. I really love this. Remy absolutely nails what makes the web so great.

There’s the ubiquity:

If the viewer is using the latest technology beefy desktop computer that’s great. Equally they could view the website from a work computer, something old and locked in using a browser called IE8.

Then there’s the low barrier to entry—yes, even today:

It’s the web’s simplicity. Born out of a need to connect documents. As much as that might have changed with the latest generation of developers who might tell you that it’s hard and complex (and they’re right), at the same time it is not complicated. It’s still beautifully simple.

Anyone can do it. Anyone can publish content to the web, be it as plain text, or simple HTML formed only of <p> tags or something more elaborate and refined. The web is unabashed of it’s content. Everything and anything goes.

I might just print this out and nail it to the wall.

If you sit back for a moment, and think about just how many lives you can touch simply by publishing something, anything, to the web, it’s utterly mind blowing.

Tuesday, May 12th, 2015

100 words 051

I’ve been thinking about what Harry said recently about logic in CSS. I think he makes an astute observation.

You can think of each part of a selector as a condition:

condition { }

That translates to code like:

if (condition) { }

So if you have a CSS selector like this:

condition1 condition2 condition3 { }

…it translates to code like this:

if (condition1) {
    if (condition2) {
        if (condition3) {

That doesn’t feel very elegant, even in its simpler form:

if (condition1 && condition2 && condition3) { }

I like Harry’s rule of thumb:

Think of your selectors as mini programs: Every time you nest or qualify, you are adding an if statement; read these ifs out loud to yourself to try and keep your selectors sane.

Wednesday, July 30th, 2014


I can relate to every single word that Bastian has written here.

The longer I look at boilerplates, build tools, frameworks and ways to make my life as a developer easier, the more I long for the basics.

Thursday, May 22nd, 2014

It’s OK not to use tools by Jonas Downey of Basecamp

Today, a basic HTML/CSS site seems almost passé. But why? Is it because our new tools are so significantly better, or because we’ve gone overboard complicating simple things?

He’s right, y’know.

Friday, January 31st, 2014

The complexity of HTML

Baldur Bjarnason has written down his thoughts on why he thinks HTML is too complex.

Now we’re back to seeing almost the same level of complexity and messiness in most web pages as we saw in the worst days of table-hacking. The semantic elements from HTML5 are largely unused.

The reason for this, as outlined in an old email by Matthew Thomas, is down to the lack of any visible benefit from browsers:

unless there is an immediate visual or behavioural benefit to using an element, most people will ignore it.

That’s a fair point, but I think it works in the opposite direction too. I’ve seen plenty of designers and developers who are reluctant to use HTML elements because of the default browser styling. The legend element is one example. A more recent one is input type=”date”—until there’s a way for authors to have more say about the generated interface, there’s going to be resistance to its usage.

Anyway, Baldur’s complaint is that HTML is increasing in complexity by adding new elements—section, article, etc.—that provide theoretical semantic value, without providing immediate visible benefits. It’s much the same argument that informed Cory Doctorow’s Metacrap essay over a decade ago. It’s a strong argument.

There’s always a bit of a chicken-and-egg situation with any kind of language extension designed to provide data structure: why should authors use the new extensions if there’s no benefit? …and why should parsers (like search engines or browsers) bother doing anything with the new extensions if nobody’s using them?

Whether it’s microformats or new HTML structural elements, the vicious circle remains the same. The solution is to try to make the barrier to entry as low as possible for authors—the parsers/spiders/browsers will follow.

I have to say, I share some of Baldur’s concern. I’ve talked before about the confusion between section and article. Providing two new elements might seem better than providing just one, but in fact it just muddies the waters and confuses authors (in my experience).

But I realise that in the grand scheme of things, I’m nitpicking. I think HTML is in pretty good shape. Baldur said “simply put, HTML is a mess,” and he’s not wrong …but HTML has always been a mess. It’s the worst mess except for all the others that have been tried. When it comes to markup, I think that “perfect” is very much the enemy of “good” (just look at XHTML2).

When I was in San Francisco back in August, I had a good ol’ chat with Tantek about markup complexity. It started when he asked me what I thought of hgroup.

I actually found quite a few use cases for hgroup in my own work …but I could certainly see why it was a dodgy solution. The way that a wrapping hgroup could change the semantic value of an h2, or h3, or whatever …that’s pretty weird, right?

And then Tantek pointed out that there are a number of HTML elements that depend on their wrapper for meaning …and that’s a level of complexity that doesn’t sit well with HTML.

For example, a p is always a paragraph, and em is always emphasis …but li is only a list item if it’s wrapped in ul or ol, and tr is only a table row if it’s wrapped in a table.

(Interestingly, these are the very same elements that browsers will automatically adjust the DOM for—generating ul and table if the author doesn’t include it. It’s like the complexity is damage that the browsers have to route around.)

I had never thought of that before, but the idea has really stuck with me. Now it smells bad to me that it isn’t valid to have a figcaption unless it’s within a figure.

These context-dependent elements increase the learning curve of HTML, and that, in my own opinion, is not a good thing. I like to think that HTML should be easy to learn—and that the web would not have been a success if its lingua franca hadn’t been grokabble by mere mortals.

Tantek half-joked about writing HTML: The Good Parts. The more I think about it, the more I think it’s a pretty good idea. If nothing else, it could make us more sensitive to any proposed extensions to HTML that would increase its complexity without a corresponding increase in value.

Tuesday, December 3rd, 2013

The (other) Web we lost

John shares his concerns about the increasing complexity involved in developing for the web.