The diminishing returns of technical sophistication

I believe there are diminishing returns to technical sophistication. An image can be only so crisp. A website so fast. An audio recording so high fidelity. There are limitations to the detail our eyes and ears can detect. And even though computing power continues to increase, there’s a limit to that as well.

In my mind, technical sophistication includes hardware specifications, which typically reflects computing, sensor, and output power. For example, contemporary cameras are marketed as having larger and finer sensors, but it can be hard to tell the difference between a super high resolution shot and something shot on an iPhone when you’re looking at it on Instagram. A larger sensor might be great for the pro, but for the average user the iPhone may be more than enough. It’s possible to geek out on audio specs like hertz and ohms, and bit depth, but can you really tell the difference when you’re listening to the song through your car speakers?

The other side of technical sophistication is about execution. It encompasses things like writing very clean and optimized code, dialing in settings within an inch of their life, and generally producing work that is more or less perfect from a specs and standards perspective. However, things that are technically precise aren’t always good or pleasant.

I believe there’s a spectrum of technical sophistication that ranges from sup-par to overkill, and somewhere in between those two extremes there’s a sweet spot that would make Goldilocks happy. If you go below that threshold, quality suffers. If you go over that, the files are probably unwieldy and ridiculously large and/or you end up spending money for horsepower that will never get used.

I’m not against technical polish. I appreciate things that have a high level of craftsmanship and often times that means using high-end tools to produce the desired result. But at a certain point more technical sophistication doesn’t add much to the polish. For example, there may be a noticeable difference in base image quality from a super basic point and shoot camera to an entry-level DSLR, to a full-frame mirrorless. But on the glass side, is it worth paying double or more for an OEM lens versus a third-party one? Depending on the output, the final result may not look all that different.

And when it comes to websites, it’s easy to obsess over loading times and improving Google Core Web Vitals, but at the end of the day there’s a limit to optimization. Unless you’re dealing with a incredibly high volume of customers or concurrent users, speed is largely about perception. I’m of the mindset that it’s possible to over optimize the website. You can spend a lot of time trying to tweak under the hood to eek out every last millisecond of speed possible, but at the end of the day, none of that matters if your content is subpar. You could do everything—purchase the fastest hosting, compress every image, optimize CSS, implement hardcore caching, use a CDN, etc.—but technical sophistication won’t save a poor user experience.

A motion graphics professor I worked with once told me a story about a student who was very proud of a certain amount of technical sophistication in his project. The student opened up After Effects, played his composition and asked “Isn’t the keyframing awesome?”

“So what?” He asked. “What does it mean?”

The young student cared so much about the technical aspects of motion graphics that he forgot to look up from his work and think about what he wanted to say.

Technical sophistication is only part of the equation. Tools matter. Execution matters. But what you’re trying to communicate and/or accomplish matters more. It’s imperative to find the Goldilocks range for technical sophistication for your project needs. Everything beyond that is diminishing returns.

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