The Grumpy Designer’s Ode to Troubleshooting


Over the years, I’ve had more than one client tell me that I have terrific job security. Why? Because something always breaks. And, even for a client who is pretty handy with their website, the need for someone to go in and troubleshoot will continue to be there.

There is certainly some truth to that logic. Hardly a day goes by where I don’t get a message regarding something that either doesn’t work at all or should work in a different way. Oh, and then there are those “little” requests that turn into a Pandora’s box full of trouble.

To put it simply: These days, nothing is simple.

A Complex Web

In recent years, it sure seems like the types of issues I deal with have become more difficult. This makes sense, as websites are ever more complex than they used to be.

Back when my specialty was building static HTML sites from scratch, there were only so many things that could go wrong. Maybe a link pointed to the wrong place or an HTML element wasn’t properly closed. Those were the good old days.

As soon as CSS, JavaScript and PHP became a part of my everyday existence, the party was over. Code can get complicated in a hurry. In addition, sites are dependent on so many things: APIs, libraries, frameworks, plugins, themes, etc. Each one of these items is another link in a chain that is fraught with peril. Something can go berserk at any time.

That makes diagnosing a problem even more difficult. For example, if your WordPress site has an issue, the steps for troubleshooting go something like this:

  • Switch to a default theme;
  • Deactivate all of your plugins;
  • One by one, re-activate each plugin and test for the issue;
  • Oh yeah, you better remember to do this all on a staging site;

Even on small websites, this is a very time-consuming process. And, even if you do happen to figure out the culprit, you then have another problem on your hands: What do you do with the offending theme or plugin?

I don’t know how many times I’ve found myself having to work as an intermediary between the authors of various themes and plugins. Once in a while, I’m fortunate enough to find a quick resolution. But so often, I’m stuck in a situation where I either have to tell my client that we can’t use a particular piece of software anymore or we just have to live with the issue. Not cool.

Coffee being poured into a mug.

The Odds of Improvement Are Slim

This grumpy designer doesn’t have a crystal ball that can see into the future. But my feeling is that websites aren’t going to revert to a simpler existence anytime soon.

Every day, it seems like another can’t-miss piece of code comes out that we want to implement into our projects. Sometimes it’s functionality, sometimes it’s vanity. Regardless, it adds another link to that chain.

The one possible exception here may be in static site generators such as GatsbyJS – at least on the front end. Linking it up with a WordPress back end still has some potential for time-consuming issues that need debugged.

That being said, the bottom line is that we are asking our websites to do more than ever before. As long as that trend continues, it stands to reason that web designers are going to spend more and more time in troubleshooting mode.

A messy pile of tools.

Adjusting to the New Reality

So, maybe we’ll just have to accept that this expanded complexity is another inconvenient truth of web design. The question is: What can we do about it?

I think the answer is in how we build and manage our workflow. For instance, charging more for certain features because we know they’ll require a lot of extra effort to make them work. Then, it may also be a matter of building time for these tasks into our daily schedule.

And maybe that last one is the most difficult part of all. Jumping into this rabbit hole of debugging code takes time away from the things I feel I should be doing. If I’m endlessly trying to fix something, there are naturally other projects I’m not able to work on in that moment.

Then there is the spontaneity of it. I’m not expecting to spend a large portion of my day on a problem that arises out of nowhere. Hence, all plans turn to dust at that point.

However, this is where experience can help. Because it seems like such a roadblock is inevitable, perhaps it’s worth building some extra padding into project deadlines. This provides some space to breathe and tackle whatever issues that rear their ugly heads.

Construction signs.

A Blessing and a Curse

When you look back at the history of web design, it’s pretty amazing to think about how the technology portion of things has changed. What used to take a team of highly-skilled developers are now just a few clicks away. Just about everything is within our reach. But with that power can come a whole lot of problems.

That means more time spent pouring over mountains of code or going back and forth with tech support. It’s just the price we have to pay for the ability to create highly-functional websites.

No, this doesn’t mean I like troubleshooting any more than I did before. But I also realize that it is becoming a larger portion of my daily grind. And all any of us can do is try to make the best of it.

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