Robb Owen writes on the state of front-end development

I’ve personally never really seen frontend as an assembly job. Lego is admittedly awesome, but for me the mental model of assembling Lego bricks in the required order until a Jira ticket can be marked as “done” feels too linear and too rigid for how I like to work.

Robb’s post is a wonderful celebration of non-linear production flows. I’m a fan and agree that assembling LEGO bricks can be boring and a bit industrial, it certainly takes a different mindset. I have strong opinions that Big Agile is actually the wrong answer for most creative collaboration work, creative work is much better suited by a prototyping demo loop or a hot-potato process to overcome the tension between design and development, but that’s another topic…

While I agree with Robb’s post, I also want to acknowledge that sometimes the job is an assembly line. Times exist when you need to slow down, think, explore, and use the non-lizard side of your brain to mold the clay and there are also times where you need to get from Point A to Point B with as little over-thinking as possible. A core part of our jobs is knowing which tasks require which mindset.

  • The homepage? Explore. Discover what’s working and not working. Dive into data. Examine the hottest homepage fashion trends. Create vibes and mood boards. Get feedback. Build divergent prototypes.
  • The third tier on your investor relations page? Assembly line. Don’t over think it unless there’s a tangible, measurable benefit or no pressing deadlines.
  • The app dashboard? Explore. Figure out what data you have, what data you don’t have. What data is easy to get? What data is hard to get? How can you combine that data together in interesting ways to benefit the user.
  • The 23rd confirmation modal? Assembly line.

The common thread there is repetition, but it takes a high-level perspective to spot that sort of repetition across a network of content. Ironically, if you want to go fast and not over-think, it pays to spend some time pre-thinking.

Breaking big problems into small to-dos is certainly an industry best practice. But we don’t often acknowledge the tradeoffs in that it creates a tunnel vision effect where it’s hard to see opportunities for broader improvements. We label thinking beyond the small issues as “risky” to the current project and flagged those thoughts as “out of scope”. This effects our products as technical debt piles up in the form of copy-paste duplicates, detachments, or something even more sinister: a snowflake.

When the goal becomes “mark tickets as done” and not “let’s be thoughtful about our content/product” you’re careening towards user and career dissatisfaction, which I think is what Robb was lamenting. I’ve been in situations where creative work gets sucked into and chewed up by the Agile machine and it’s not great. Situations where the design direction was “Grab these five components from Tailwind UI and call it a day” or “Copy what Popular Brand ABC is doing.” It is what it is, but I always thought it weird to hire me to do that because I’m an expensive copy-paste machine.

Anyways. If you do find yourself stuck on an assembly line, I recommend a good set of headphones and chill lo-fi beats or whatever music helps you focus.