The Problem of “Fire and Forget” in Web Design
If I were to pick the main issue in web design… I couldn’t answer immediately. I don’t think there are so many, but there are a few, they are very different, they operate on different scales, and so they’re hard to compare. You’ve seen me hint at some when speaking about overeager standards development; then lack of tailoring; lack of code post-optimization; low information density; &c. These are symptoms themselves, but while reflecting the wonderful creative thrust that drives the Web, they originate in a seemingly impenetrable resistance to think long-term quality.
But there’s another symptom that prevents long-term quality: the practice of “fire and forget.”
The practice of “fire and forget” is, in essence, doing something, and then never again looking at or touching it. It’s common among agencies and marketing teams but, from my experience, happens everywhere. Maybe we ourselves could pull a project out of our code repositories that we’ve once set up, and never again dealt with.
There are two key issues with “fire and forget.”
One is that thinking it could work is a fallacy. While the person originally coming up with the idea, and perhaps executing it, may never again see and work on a project (fired and forgotten successfully), there’s always someone who needs to clean up.
The other is that the approach completely fails to understand how web design is a process, and how thus “forgetting” about projects makes for subpar user experience and reputation. In the same vein, firing and forgetting is a maintenance disaster, an amateur assumption that one could actually forget, and never touch again, anything once produced. We should consider making it a law too that “one cannot not maintain” .
But then, what are the causes for this? Here, too, I make out two things.
For one, long-term thinking on the Web seems quite kaputt. Nobody cares. Website maintainability should be a pillar in any web-related curriculum, but if we’re lucky we find one meager guide. Maintenance makes for a billion dollar expense in some companies, and no one is flinching to pay. There’s an all-pervading disturbing sense of “YOLO” around that makes everyone hustle and bustle today, and never think about the consequences in terms of long-term effects. That’s fire and forget.
For another, just plain ignorance. We cannot expect an agency salesperson or a marketer to know that websites and apps need to be maintained. (Or can we? I didn’t want to imply anything.) We cannot expect them to include this in negotiations, to make smarter deals that are better for clients, and better for the company for one focuses on the user through maintained, unforgotten services. We cannot expect people to break out of short-sightedness. I’m getting ahead of myself.
The point is, “fire and forget” is but one issue in web design, and it’s symptomatic for not at the root of it all. And still it’s toxic, and still it’s representative for a good part of the malaise we’re in, spoiling and rotting away many of the good (creative) things we see on the Web. That’s something I find important to understand.
I’m Jens Oliver Meiert, and I’m an engineering manager and author. I’ve worked as a technical lead for Google, I’m close to the W3C and the WHATWG, and I write and review books for O’Reilly. Other than that, I love trying things, sometimes including philosophy, art, and adventure. Here on meiert.com I share some of my views and experiences.
If you have questions or suggestions about what I write, please leave a comment (if available) or a message.
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Perhaps my most comprehensive book: The Web Development Glossary (2020). With explanations and definitions for literally thousands of terms from Web Development and related fields, building on Wikipedia as well as the MDN Web Docs. Available at Apple Books, Kobo, Google Play Books, and Leanpub.