No one actually wants simplicity

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The reason that modern web development is swamped with complexity is that no one really wants things to be simple. We just think we do, while our choices prove otherwise.

A lot of developers want simplicity in the same way that a lot of clients claim they want a fast website. You respond “OK, so we can remove some of these 17 Javascript trackers and other bloat that’s making your website horribly slow?” – no, apparently those are all critical business functionality.

In other words, they prioritise everything over speed. And then they wonder why using their website is like rowing a boat through a lake of molasses on a cold day using nothing but a small plastic spoon.

The same is often true of complexity. The real test is the question “what are you willing to sacrifice to achieve simplicity?” If the answer is “nothing”, then you don’t actually love simplicity at all, it’s your lowest priority.

When I say “sacrifice”, I don’t mean that choosing simplicity will mean you are worse off overall – simplicity brings massive benefits. But it does mean that there will be some things that tempt you to believe you are missing out.

For every developer, it might be something different. For one, the tedium of having to spend half an hour a month ensuring that two different things are kept in sync easily justifies the adoption of a bulky framework that solves that particular problem. For another, the ability to control how a checkbox animates when you check it is of course a valid reason to add another 50 packages and 3 layers of frameworks to their product. For another, adding an abstraction with thousands of lines of codes, dozens of classes and page after page of documentation in order to avoid manually writing a tiny factory function for a test is a great trade-off.

Of course we all claim to hate complexity, but it’s actually just complexity added by other people that we hate — our own bugbears are always exempted, and for things we understand we quickly become unable to even see there is a potential problem for other people. Certainly there are frameworks and dependencies that justify their existence and adoption, but working out which ones they are is hard.

I think a good test of whether you truly love simplicity is whether you are able to remove things you have added, especially code you’ve written, even when it is still providing value, because you realise it is not providing enough value.

Another test is what you are tempted to do when a problem arises with some of the complexity you’ve added. Is your first instinct to add even more stuff to fix it, or is it to remove and live with the loss?

The only path I can see through all this is to cultivate an almost obsessive suspicion of FOMO. I think that’s probably key to learning to say no.

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