The day we started to allow email clients to be full-blown web browsers (but without the protections of browsers) was the day we lost — time, security, privacy, and effectiveness. Now we spend all our time fighting with the materials of an email (i.e. color and layout) rather than refining its substance (i.e. story and language).
If only all thinkpieces on complexity in software development were written in such an entertaining style! (Although, admittedly, that would get very old very fast.)
A layman’s guide to thinking like the self-aware smol brained
Even when each new layer of complexity starts to bring zero or even negative returns on investment, people continue trying to do what worked in the past. At some point, the morass they’ve built becomes so dysfunctional and unwieldy that the only solution is collapse: i.e., a rapid decrease in complexity, usually by abolishing the old system and starting from scratch.
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).
In this piece published a year ago, Ted Chiang pours cold water on the idea of a bootstrapping singularity.
How much can you optimize for generality? To what extent can you simultaneously optimize a system for every possible situation, including situations never encountered before? Presumably, some improvement is possible, but the idea of an intelligence explosion implies that there is essentially no limit to the extent of optimization that can be achieved. This is a very strong claim. If someone is asserting that infinite optimization for generality is possible, I’d like to see some arguments besides citing examples of optimization for specialized tasks.
The web historically moves in waves.
Libraries are created to push complex features in an easier way. Then the libraries themselves get complicated, often more so than the benefits they provide.
Eventually, (some of) the core features of those libraries make their way into the browser itself, but the libraries linger like water on the shore, slowly receding.
And before the sand has a chance to fully dry, a new set of libraries washes in to push the web even further.
Prompted by my talk, The State Of The Web, Brian zooms out to get some perspective on how browser power is consolidated.
The web is made of clients and servers. There’s a huge amount of diversity in the server space but there’s very little diversity when it comes to clients because making a browser has become so complex and expensive.
But Brian hopes that this complexity and expense could be distributed amongst a large amount of smaller players.
10 companies agreeing to invest $10k apiece to advance and maintain some area of shared interest is every bit as useful as 1 agreeing to invest $100k generally. In fact, maybe it’s more representative.
We believe that there is a very long tail of increasingly smaller companies who could do something, if only they coordinated to fund it together. The further we stretch this out, the more sources we enable, the more its potential adds up.
Folks, this is not okay. Our industry is characterized by institutional recklessness and a callous lack of empathy for our users.
We can’t control systems or figure them out. But we can dance with them!
- Get the beat.
- Listen to the wisdom of the system.
- Expose your mental models to the open air.
- Stay humble. Stay a learner.
- Honor and protect information.
- Locate responsibility in the system.
- Make feedback policies for feedback systems.
- Pay attention to what is important, not just what is quantifiable.
- Go for the good of the whole.
- Expand time horizons.
- Expand thought horizons.
- Expand the boundary of caring.
- Celebrate complexity.
- Hold fast to the goal of goodness.
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.
Until there is movement on developers taking CSS more seriously and understanding its full capabilities, we are caught in an awkward loop where introducing too much complexity in your project’s CSS will do more harm than good.
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
- Case studies and related guides
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.
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.
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.