In Defense of Breaking the Law

The inimitable Ethan Marcotte recently wrote an article about the dangers of advising people to pursue certain actions/techniques even if they don’t have permission from their bosses or stakeholders.

I’ve noticed a rhetorical trope in our industry. It’s not, like, widespread, but I see it in enough blog entries and conference talks that I think it’s a pretty common pattern: namely, the author’s sharing some advice with the reader and, if the reader’s boss or stakeholders won’t support a given course of action, suggests the reader “just do the thing anyway.”

I think this is a bad, harmful trope. And I also think we should avoid using it.

I respectfully disagree.

To be clear, I absolutely agree with these points:

  • We should be careful not to talk about our own experiences as if they’re gospel. We need to be mindful that the things we promote — especially those things we are personally super duper excited about! — may not work for everyone. “I’m excited about [thing], therefore everyone should just use [thing].” is a tale as old as time.
  • We should recognize the real risks and challenges people face. To proclaim “just do [thing]” callously brushes aside the complexity of people’s often-thorny situations and downplays the level of effort to achieve whatever the person is promoting. Chris Coyier reminds us that “it’s impossible to know from the outside what’s going on in the inside of other people’s websites” in his fantastic article “Just Use [insert CMS here]! Or, Why I Still Love WordPress“.
  • We should be careful when doling out advice that might get folks into hot water at work. Actions have consequences, and promoting potentially subversive behavior shouldn’t be taken lightly.

On all those points I wholeheartedly agree. That said, I’m someone who is a big fan of asking forgiveness rather than permission. And I think it’s important to encourage teams to find strategic, creative, tactful ways to best serve their users and businesses, even if they don’t have express permission to do so.

We’d all be living in a hellscape of terrible web experiences if everyone waited for their CEO to get on board with a concept after reading some watered-down Forbes article about accessibility/performance/UX/responsive design/design systems/etc. Teams have to do what they can to create great experiences, and sometimes that means taking a calculated risk to move forward with a plan that isn’t officially sanctioned.

Of course it’s far preferable to to go through official channels and have your boss’s and stakeholders’ full support. However, selling certain strategies, best practices, or technologies may fall on deaf ears. “We’ve been trying to convince our stakeholders for years to do it this way! The whole team is on board but we haven’t been able to secure funding/resources/time to do it.” In those instances, rather than throwing their hands up and resigning themselves to a future of sub-par work, I think it’s important to find creative ways to make great work happen.

Part of the job

There’s a difference between a boss expressly saying “no” to something then doing it anyways, and pursuing a (not expressly approved) course of action as part of practicing your craft. The former is a jerk move that puts the project and team in jeopardy (see also, Leeeeeeeroy Jenkiiins). The latter is, in my view, sometimes a necessity in order to set a project up for success.

And I also there’s a difference between something that has obvious, visible consequences for the user experience (such as responsive design) and things that are procedural in nature (such as making a pattern library).

In my advocacy for creating design systems, I argue that creating a pattern library is more a mental shift in how the team works rather than a separate thing that has big ramifications on scope and budget.

In fact, to create the whole, you need to create the parts of that whole. Our interfaces consist of smaller pieces, whether you pay those smaller pieces any mind or not.

You have a decision to make: focus solely on creating the whole while ignoring the parts, or spend some time organizing the parts to help you more efficiently create the whole.

Bosses and stakeholders rightfully ask “how much will this cost?” with any proposal, but playing that game with industry best practices opens the door to lousy outcomes. “Oh accessibility is a nice to have right now, we can’t afford to do that.”

Delivery is key

When offering advice, be careful how it’s offered.

I absolutely agree that the delivery of advice like this is crucial to how it’s interpreted. I obviously think it’s a bad idea to advise people to recklessly defy their boss, go rogue, and damn the consequences. A lifetime’s worth of Catholic guilt weighing down on me makes me super uneasy about breaking or even bending the rules.

I also feel we have a responsibility to move things forward. I feel a certain duty to help empower teams to strategically move forward, even in the face of some pretty serious risk aversion. I personally love helping teams cut through red tape, circumvent bureaucracy, and take lemons and make some serious lemonade. So no, I don’t think we should refrain from advising people to pursue industry best practices even when their bosses aren’t on board. The trick is do so in a thoughtful, strategic, and responsible way.