Accessibility, Tech, Web

Front-End (Over)Engineering

Everything Should Be Made as Simple as Possible, But Not Simpler - Albert Einstein

There is a great story about NASA’s Space Pen. Stop me if you have heard this one…

Supposedly, NASA spent a whole bunch of money and time developing a pen that astronauts could use upside down and in anti-gravity settings. The result was the Fisher Zero Gravity Pen. Real fancy stuff.

Of course, the very resourceful Russian’s on the other side of the world developed a much simpler solution: A pencil!

It turns out that this story is not true, but the moral is still worth noting. Keep it simple!

Perfection is achieved not when there is nothing more to add, but when there is nothing left to take away.

Antoine de Saint-Exupery

I find that as Front-End Engineers, we often create problems for ourselves in the process of trying to push the browser past it’s limits then come up with over-the-top ways to solve them. We are really good at complicating everything, hence the title I use a lot; Front-end (Over)Engineers. Maybe this cycle of breaking and fixing is how we stay relevant?

I think Facebook has had, in my opinion, a history of over-engineering their products. I remember a long time ago when their senior developers presented their groundbreaking performance improvements on the main Facebook timeline. Their big reveal was doing away with custom elements and using native HTML input elements like <textarea /> and <input type="checkbox" />. These guys were applauded for being geniuses, it was hilarious.

Last week, Facebook announced they will be using AI to create alternate text descriptions for uploaded images (Read: Facebook begins using artificial intelligence to describe photos to blind users). I imagine in conjunction with their auto-tagging capability, they can get pretty descriptive. Fantastic technology!

Unfortunately, this new breakthrough was not received well. It turns out, people just wanted a simpler approach, like Twitter released a month ago that allows a user to specify their own description (Read: Twitter now lets you add alt text to photos, for the visually impaired). WordPress has been doing this for a long time.

Facebook claims they wanted a frictionless experience for users. They felt that users would not want to be bothered with adding their own description, but users have spoken out and said otherwise. I think the best balance would be to have the AI generated description as a suggestion that you could easily override. Think of the way Google Inbox suggests an automatic response but still lets you edit/ add to the message.

Now, I have met the fine folks in the FB accessibility team. I don’t think they did this as a gimmick, they are definitely passionate about what they do. I am super grateful and appreciative of anything anybody will do/ attempt to make the web more accessible. I just think they let the available technology dictate the use rather than the actual need, much like the mythical space pen vs pencil story.

The one thing I hate more than over-complicating things is the way simplicity, or the process of simplifying, is often looked down upon. Simple means that you are just not smart enough to understand more complex designs. Simple !== stupid. With that, I leave you with a final quote.

Any intelligent fool can make things bigger, more complex, and more violent. It takes a touch of genius — and a lot of courage to move in the opposite direction.

Ernst F. Schumacher

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