Egad, Not Another “Weird Al” Video?

I can’t believe I’m linking to Yet Another “Weird Al” Yankovic video, but here it is. It seems that Al culled mission statements from a wide variety of organizations and put them to music, based on Stephen Stills’ love song to Judy Collins, “Suite: Judy Blue Eyes.” Warning: I wasn’t sure whether to laugh or seek medical attention, but it will definitely impact the way I talk about project goals.

Thanks to Craig Brown for calling my attention to this one.



A Needlessly Complex User Experience

VTA ElevatorOn the right is a picture of an elevator at the VTA Light Rail station at the Great Mall, in Milpitas, California.  It allows people with limited mobility, or those traveling with bicycles, to travel between the station and the sidewalk below. You might expect that an elevator with only two stops would have a relatively simple user interface. After all, as a user, you only want to go from the stop where you boarded to the other stop. One button should suffice. But, no – the user experience is painfully, needlessly complicated, by imbedding control surfaces and indicators for the most common use cases in amongst the more rare use cases.

Discoverable With Difficulty

Control PanelAs you can see, the control panel is festooned with buttons, indicators, key-operated switches, and labels. The prominent red button is for emergency calls; if you press it by mistake, you need to somehow find and press the Call Cancel button in the upper right, in a different control surface group. Directly beneath the emergency intercom button are two buttons, with white on black labels to the left, “P” and “*S. “ Squinting at the engraved label above the Braille instructions to the right of each button, you will realize that “P” stands for “Platform” (not “Parking”) and the starred “S” stands for “Street Level.” It’s not clear why the platform doesn’t merit a star.

Side-by-side and below the starred street level button are buttons to Open and Close the door; immediately below the Open button is an Alarm button.  To the right of the Alarm button is a key switch, to lock the doors. Below this is a recessed section with eight more key switches, an indicator lamp, and a 110 VAC duplex outlet. At the top is another key switch, labeled fire service, an indicator, and a jack for a Fireman’s Phone. No doubt, each of these controls and features is required by law, safety regulations, elevator design convention, and the manufacturer. They just aren’t particularly beneficial to members of the traveling public, who actually use this elevator.

Needless Complexity Impedes Value Realization

If you board the elevator at the platform level, nothing useful happens until you figure out that you need to press the starred “S” button.  However, you have two different ways to upset someone manning a remote control console, even if you didn’t intend to. Making the emergency intercom button so prominent and positioning it so close to one of the two most-used controls guarantees a high number of false calls.

I applaud the use of labels in Braille; however, labels for the sighted majority should be prominent, rather than small engravings, subject to wear. Abbreviations and symbols should be instantly recognizable, or they are simply a source of confusion. Far too much effort is required for the casual user to get value from this elevator; there are far too many failure modes, valid choices with no result, and unavailable choices in close proximity to the useful choices. But the most important lesson here should be that compliance with standards and other non-functional requirements is not an excuse to deliver a truly wretched user experience. Would you use software that had a UX like this? Would your target user population? We expect our interactions to be obvious, rather than tedious. Time to value is the difference between acceptance and rejection of a product.

Next time, I’ll take the stairs.

You are NOT a Software Gardener

Farmer with iPadChris Aitchison, a Melbourne software developer and occasional blogger, posted his thoughts on estimating a couple of years ago.  In You are NOT a Software Engineer, Chris argues that engineers who design and build bridges are held to a higher standard for providing estimates and hitting them than software developers should be. “In most countries, Engineers need a license to build a bridge.” Chris makes the argument that the engineering metaphor for software development is outdated, and refers to himself as a software gardener.

Do you try to plan your gardens in such detail that you know where each leaf will be positioned before you plant a single seed? Do people expect estimates (or are they promises in your organisation?) on exactly how many flowers will have bloomed in one years time? Do you have a bonus tied to that? Things that would be perfectly reasonable to plan for a skyscraper seem a little ridiculous when you are talking about a garden.

Farming is a business, in that there are stakeholders other than the farmer. Gardening, not so much. Farmers have to present a business plan to the bank in order to get the financing for a crop. That means that they need to estimate their yield, based on the yields in prior years for the same fields, adjusting for new fertilizers, improved seed varieties, pest management technology, climate change, and other variables both under and out of their control. Most farmers contract most of their expected harvest to some large company, who will sell futures contracts to supermarkets, restaurant chains, and so on. Gardeners, not so much.

Farmers go to school, including graduate school, to learn how to maximize their yield and quality, and sustain the value of their fields over their lifetimes and the lifetimes of their descendents. There are farms that have been in production for centuries. Gardeners go to the garden center and show pictures of their wilted leaves to the professionals, who sell them soil amendments or pest treatments in an attempt to recover what they can. When gardeners get frustrated, they give up and let the weeds take over. My wife and I are avid gardeners, which means we aren’t farmers and we know it.

If you’re creating an iPad app in your spare time, the gardener metaphor is fine. If you’re creating an enterprise application, we expect you to work like a farmer.