December 26, 2012

Building An Anti-Fragile Website

published this at 8:26 am

by James Ellis

What’s the opposite of fragile? Robust? Strong? Wrong. Those words imply the ability to survive change. Fragile means the inability to survive change, so the opposite would be something that actually gets better with change. It’s not robust, it’s antifragile.

Bend, Don’t Break

Based on an argument by Nassim Nicholas Taleb in his new book Antifragile, we should be looking for things, processes and ideas that are antifragile, things that actually get better the more you beat up on them. They learn to bend instead of break, and actually become stronger at the bend.

This twistedly simple idea sounds impossible. How can we build web sites and tools that actually get better the more they fail?

It seems impossible. The code structure that controls all of our web creations is very fragile, as anyone who forgot to include that trailing slash in a div tag can tell you. A single missed keystroke can be the difference between slick and useful and a mound of bit-based junk.

Create Antifragile Systems

So how do we build antifragile web sites? I propose that it’s not the sites that need to be antifragile, but the systems we place around them that we should focus on.

Here’s an example. You build a web site. Do you have some completed procedures to test your code before you launch? Is there a committee that looks at every word and every image and analyzes each page? These are processes that work to make sure that the site doesn’t break on launch. These processes are necessary, but they drag out the launch process, sometimes doubling or even tripling development times. And because of these processes, you and your business feel confident that anything you launch is pretty much bulletproof.

Until something changes. A new browser, new audience, new business requirements, unforeseen product launches, new digital channels, whatever it is, change is coming. You built a site designed to withstand 2012 pressures, but 2013 is right around the corner.

So instead of building a perfect site for the now, you build a great site for now, but you build a process that learns from the failures that always follow? Spend less of your resources on quality assurance, and more on post-launch testing and learning. Because you are anticipating and looking for failures, you will be the first to spot new trends and ideas. Because you are learning how to fix these new failures, you are becoming a smarter development house. Because you are not pretending that the future isn’t coming, you will be the first to succeed within it.

Your website is inherently fragile. It will break. No amount of thought, time, brains or energy can keep you from building a future-proof site. Can’t. Be. Done. Changing your process from 100% proactive-focused into something that can react to inevitable changes better completely revolutionizes your web development strategy and makes you better long term.

Because what have you made antifragile? Your entire web development business. The more failures you see, the faster you can address them and the better you become. You will get better the more you fail. And since failure is inevitable, this means you will inevitably become better at web development.

Author’s Bio: James Ellis is a digital strategist, mad scientist, lover, fighter, drummer and blogger living in Chicago. You can reach out to him or just argue with his premise at saltlab.com.

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