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  • November 15, 2012

All Systems Are Go!(ing to Come Apart)

Bless her soul, Bessie stunk at jigsaw puzzles. She seemed less interested in recreating the dissected bucolic scene she’d purchased at Rose’s pharmacy decades ago than she was in hurriedly rearranging and redefining the jumbled mess splashed onto the modest kitchen table in front of her. There was no right way, just her way—and the multiple arrangements that lay ahead were every bit as valid to her as the ordered state its designer printed on the box. She just can’t see well, I figured. I never asked. Decorative Illustration

Well, If The Piece Fits

Of course, the jigsaw pieces my great aunt fit together didn’t mean to fit together, and bending and folding isn’t exactly what the manufacturer had in mind. Maybe puzzles just weren’t her cuppa tea:

“There is one, and only one, arrangement in which the pieces make a complete picture. On the other hand, there are a very large number of arrangements in which the pieces are disordered and don’t make a complete picture,” says Stephen Hawking, explaining the universe’s steady march toward disorder. Supposing the puzzle is already completed and the box is shaken, he continues, “The disorder of the pieces will probably increase with time if the pieces satisfy the initial condition of high order.”

Web design isn’t rocket science (or quantum mechanics, as it were), and system extensibility isn’t exactly the arrow of time, but the idea’s the same: disorder in a highly ordered system is inevitable and decay is a guarantee regardless of the system—be it the second law of thermodynamics, a jigsaw puzzle, your car, your house, or a website.

Stop Me if You’ve Heard This One About Systems and Pages Before

The most frequent mistake I’ve seen (and the one I’ve made most frequently) is client sign-off of a website interpreted by its authors as commitment to design integrity, when the reality is the purchaser’s transfixed by beautifully-balanced, pre-assembled jigsaw puzzles restricted by fixed arrangements. Eventually somebody’s going to take it off the shelf and shake it.

What will it be then?

Design for Every State, Not the Best State

Whether a system declines glacially and gracefully or fails spectacularly is contingent on planning and requirements gathering, and what-if’ing every possible component relationship across a template family. Regardless of your role—designer, developer, project manager—ask questions. Many a broken template has been saved just by speaking up: Will X-Y-Z always be in that order? Can you support X? What if Y is missing? Should these thumbnails be 16:9 to accommodate video? Are you sure? How sure? How will the template adjust? What does that mean for other screen sizes?

Rats! System Governance!

Every few weeks, I drive by some old sites I designed to see if the walls are still up. Some are in better shape than others. Others barely look at all like I remember, or they’re exactly what I left behind and I just remember them much more fondly. Some look absolutely rat-infested.

Client-side publishing workflow is probably a system’s greatest threat after the engagement ends. Plan as you might, unless the rats, the frustrating little pains-in-the-ass process problems—the CMS, the broken approval process, the lack of a design and content advocate—are exterminated, system decay will onset ahead of schedule. And then the client team will tear down and redesign and wait until the rats come back, and then do it all over again.

I’ve Got a Plan. It’s the Best I Can Do.

The failures sting a little, but as a designer, I find little else more satisfying about this work than seeing a system I helped design, months and sometimes years later, holding up to challenges I never anticipated. For such an ephemeral service, I struggle to find any greater accomplishment.

Any system secrets up your sleeve to share?

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