Are we in danger of over engineering?

Paul Boag

Web standards, CSS, XHTML, Microformats, WAI, semantic code, code validation, XML, eGIF, DOM, AJAX… is it just me or is web design getting a lot more complicated these days? Admittedly all of the above are very exciting developments and crucial for the future evolution of the web but I have to ask myself, are we in danger of over engineering things?

Web design is like car design

Cars can come with lots of cool stuff these days. From anti lock breaks, GPS, and power steering, to iPod player, on board computer and air bags. However, you don’t find all of these features in every car. Why not? The answer is obvious, they all cost money. Sure, if you are building a luxury top of the range Audi then you might include all these features. On the other hand, many people just want a car to get them from A to B and do not care about these kinds of bells and whistles. I believe the same is true for web design.

The Wild West of web design

There is a lot of talk about web design coming of age. We are moving past those Wild West days of web design where men were men and web sites were built by a bunch of cowboys. Now we are all grown up and behaving like responsible software engineers. However, like a spotty teenage boy growing his first sad excuse of a moustache, we are trying too hard. We seem to be under the impression that we have to cram all of these new features into every web site we build irrespective of whether it is appropriate or not.

Understand your audience. Understand your constraints

My wife is an engineer and it was her that first pointed out this danger of over engineering when I was telling her about all the latest web developments (admittedly I had to poke her a few times to keep her awake). She said that the golden rules of design are to understand your audience and understand your constraints.

Understanding your audience

I know this is heresy, but if less than 1% of your users are viewing your site on a Mac, is it necessary to test the site on that platform. Equally, if you are designing a site for a paintball company is it necessary to make that site accessible for blind people. Admittedly, a blind person could be booking paintballing for a friend who does not have a disability that would exclude them from the activity, but how likely is that really and is it worth the extra expense of testing for it?

Understand your constraints

In many cases, this comes down to money. Testing on multiple browsers and complying with various standards takes time and time in most cases costs money. Often clients come to us with a set budget and they want the most they can get for that money. It is up to me to make sure they get the biggest return on investment. If its a choice between making sure the site works with JavaScript disabled or giving them a user tested ecommerce system I will probably choose the latter.

My concerns

Many designers in the past have been more concerned with making nice pieces of "art" for their portfolio rather than producing a design that works well for the client and his users. In these more enlightened days of user centric design, we do not take that approach. However, it is probably true to say that we do in our code. Are we more concerned with adding those little links in the footers of our sites telling our peers that this site validates or that it uses web standards and is accessible than we are making sure our clients get the best return.