Recognizing Constraints

There’s a “C” word in web development that we don’t give enough attention to. No, I’m not talking about “continuous integration”, or even “CSS”. The “C” word I’m talking about is “constraints”. Understanding constraints is a vital part of building software that works the best it can in its targeted environment(s). Yet, the difficulty of that task varies based on the systems we develop for.

Super Nintendo games were the flavor of the decade when I was younger, and there’s no better example of building incredible things within comparably meager constraints. Developers on SNES titles were limited to, among other things:

  • 16-bit color.
  • 8 channel stereo output.
  • Cartridges with storage capacities measured in megabits, not megabytes.
  • Limited 3D rendering capabilities on select titles which embedded a special chip in the cartridge.
SNES Cartridge for Secret of Mana

Despite these constraints, game developers cranked out incredible and memorable titles that will endure beyond our lifetimes. Yet, the constraints SNES developers faced were static. You had a single platform with a single set of capabilities. If you could stay within those capabilities and maximize their potential, your game could be played—and adored—by anyone with an SNES console.

PC games, on the other hand, had to be developed within a more flexible set of constraints. I remember one of my first PC games had its range of system requirements displayed on the side of the box:

  • Have at least a 386 processor—but Pentium is preferred.
  • Ad Lib or PC speaker supported—but Sound Blaster is best.
  • Show up to the party with at least 4 megabytes of RAM—but more is better.
Software box for Hexen

If you didn’t have a world-class system at the time, you could still have an enjoyable experience, even if it was diminished in some ways.

Console and PC game development are great examples of static and variable constraints, respectively. One forces buy-in of a single hardware configuration to participate, while the other allows participation on a variety of hardware configurations with a gradient of performance outcomes.

Does this sound familiar?

Web developers arguably have the most difficult set of constraints to contend with. This is because we have to reconcile three distinct variables to create fast websites:

  1. The network.
  2. The device.
  3. The browser.

With every year that passes, I gain more understanding of just how challenging those constraints are to work within. It’s a lesson I learn repeatedly with every project, every client, and every new technology I evaluate.

Coping with the constraints the web imposes is a hard job. The part of me that abhors how much JavaScript we ship has difficulty knowing where to draw the line of when too much is too much. Developer experience has a role in our day-to-day work, and we need just enough of it to grease the skids, but also without tanking the user experience. Because, as our foundational documents tell us, users are first in line for consideration.

So what did I learn this year?

The same thing I relearn every year, just in a subtly different way every time: there are costs and trade-offs associated with our technology choices. This year I relearned—in clear and present fashion—how our technology choices can lock us into architectures that can both harm the user experience if we don’t step lightly and become increasingly difficult to break out of when we must.

Another thing I learned is that using the platform is hard work. Yet, the more I use it, the stronger my grasp on its abstractions becomes. Direct use of the platform isn’t always the best or most scalable way to work, but using it on a regular basis instead of installing whatever package scratches whatever itch I have right this second helps me to understand how the web works at a deeper level. That’s valuable knowledge that pays off over time, and your ability to build useful abstractions becomes more difficult without it.

Finally, I learned yet again this year that our constraints are variable. It’s acceptable if some things don’t work as well as they should everywhere—but we need to be very mindful of what those things are. How acceptable those lapses in our responsibility to the public depends on the function we serve. If it’s a remotely crucial function, we need to proceed with the utmost care and consideration of users. If this year of rising unemployment and remote learning has taught us anything, the internet is for more than commerce.

My hope is that the web becomes more adaptive in 2021 than it has been in years past. I hope that we start to have the same expectations for the user experience that we did when we were kids playing PC games—that an experience can vary in its fidelity in order to accommodate slower systems—and that’s a perfectly fine thing for the web. It’s certainly more flexible than expecting everyone to cope with the exact same experience, whether they’re on an iPhone 12 or an Android Go phone.

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