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.
Monday, February 11th, 2019
Thursday, January 31st, 2019
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.
Friday, January 18th, 2019
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.
Sunday, January 13th, 2019
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.
Monday, September 10th, 2018
Robustness and least power
There’s a great article by Steven Garrity over on A List Apart called Design with Difficult Data. It runs through the advantages of using unusual content to stress-test interfaces, referencing Postel’s Law, AKA the robustness principle:
Be conservative in what you send, be liberal in what you accept.
Even though the robustness principle was formulated for packet-switching, I see it at work in all sorts of disciplines, including design. A good example is in best practices for designing forms:
Every field you ask users to fill out requires some effort. The more effort is needed to fill out a form, the less likely users will complete the form. That’s why the foundational rule of form design is shorter is better — get rid of all inessential fields.
In other words, be conservative in the number of form fields you send to users. But then, when it comes to users filling in those fields:
It’s very common for a few variations of an answer to a question to be possible; for example, when a form asks users to provide information about their state, and a user responds by typing their state’s abbreviation instead of the full name (for example, CA instead of California). The form should accept both formats, and it’s the developer job to convert the data into a consistent format.
In other words, be liberal in what you accept from users.
I find the robustness principle to be an immensely powerful way of figuring out how to approach many design problems. When it comes to figuring out what specific tools or technologies to use, there’s an equally useful principle: the rule of least power:
Choose the least powerful language suitable for a given purpose.
On the face of it, this sounds counter-intuitive; why forego a powerful technology in favour of something less powerful?
Well, power comes with a price. Powerful technologies tend to be more complex, which means they can be trickier to use and trickier to swap out later.
In the web front-end stack — HTML, CSS, JS, and ARIA — if you can solve a problem with a simpler solution lower in the stack, you should. It’s less fragile, more foolproof, and just works.
- Instead of using ARIA to give a certain
rolevalue to a
span, try to use a more suitable HTML element instead.
It sounds a lot like the KISS principle: Keep It Simple, Stupid. But whereas the KISS principle can be applied within a specific technology—like keeping your CSS manageable—the rule of least power is all about evaluating technology; choosing the most appropriate technology for the task at hand.
There are some associated principles, like YAGNI: You Ain’t Gonna Need It. That helps you avoid picking a technology that’s too powerful for your current needs, but which might be suitable in the future: premature optimisation. Or, as Rachel put it, stop solving problems you don’t yet have:
So make sure every bit of code added to your project is there for a reason you can explain, not just because it is part of some standard toolkit or boilerplate.
There’s no shortage of principles, laws, and rules out there, and I find many of them very useful, but if I had to pick just two that are particularly applicable to my work, they would be the robustness principle and the rule of least of power.
After all, if they’re good enough for Tim Berners-Lee…
Thursday, May 31st, 2018
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.
Saturday, February 10th, 2018
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
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
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:
- Keep it simple.
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?
You get to keep WebGL, Shadow DOM, WASM, React, and Angular.
(I know which group I’d rather be in.)
Wednesday, November 15th, 2017
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.
Wednesday, September 6th, 2017
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.
Wednesday, July 19th, 2017
I think “it’s simple” shouldn’t be used to explain something.
Tuesday, July 18th, 2017
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.
Sunday, July 24th, 2016
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.
Sunday, March 6th, 2016
The full text of Adam’s excellent talk at EnhanceConf.
Wednesday, January 20th, 2016
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.
Saturday, January 2nd, 2016
Sunday, April 12th, 2015
I like this nice straightforward approach. Instead of jumping into the complexities of the final interactive component, Chris starts with the basics and layers on the complexity one step at a time, thereby creating a more robust solution.
If I had one small change to suggest, maybe
aria-label might work better than offscreen text for the controls …as documented by Heydon.
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.