Worse, and when & how it can be ‘better’

John Ohno on 2018-11-16

Richard Gabriel’s essay ‘Worse is Better’ is used to excuse a lot of bullshit, in ways that Gabriel would not endorse (and in ways that conflict with the explanations Gabriel himself gives). This is probably because, like other damaging slogans such as “move fast and break things” and “it’s better to beg for forgiveness than ask for permission”, it’s short and catchy enough to spread well beyond the context in which it’s valid advice.

“Worse is Better” does not argue that bad things are automatically good, or that poor design has an inherent advantage over good design. Instead, it argues that in particular circumstances, the necessity of nuance hinders or slows widespread adoption. It is relatively rare that widespread adoption is desirable, so this phenomenon is usually irrelevant.

I have recently heard people claim “worse is better” is the reason that:

I have heard both things from the same person, even though they use essentially contradictory interpretations of the essay. (Both are based on common, yet anhistorical, myths. In fact, Gopher was doing just fine until an attempt to enforce trademarks, and Xanadu has been plagued by management problems.)

Here are some situations when ‘worse’ can be ‘better’:

In all of these situations, ‘better’ belongs in scare-quotes:

The web did not win over gopher because ‘worse is better’: a complete gopher client or server can be written by a beginner programmer in an afternoon, while web servers look like Apache (or, at best, like lighttpd) and web browsers look like Chrome (or, at best, like dillo) — gopher is conceptually simpler, has a shallower initial learning curve, and supports all of the useful features of HTTP. Even if it did, that wouldn’t justify the win — it would merely be another tragedy.

When ‘worse is better’ actually applies, it highlights the ways in which accidents of history occasionally deprive us of greatness. Rather than using it to justify giving up on quality, we ought to rectify the situations in which it occurs.