Software design


Sometimes you can trust too much. Wherever I’ve worked I’ve been involved in a few examples where we listened to the customer, trusted them to know what they wanted, given it to them, and they’ve regretted it. We have delivered anti-features.

A lamp with slightly too many featuresMost recently at Guardian Unlimited our (previous) homepage had clever layout rules whose logic sometimes overrode the content that editors entered. The result was that editors were often confused that the page didn’t render according to what they had put in the system. The clever layout rules had been devised by close collaboration with the original editors and graphic designers — the expert users. They reasoned that they didn’t want anyone to unbalance the layout by entering inappropriate combinations of text and images.

But these layout rules had been forgotten over time, hence the confusion years later. Consequently the tech team was often called up regarding a supposed bug (“I’ve put this image in but it doesn’t appear”), and effort was expended only to discover that it was in fact a feature — much to the caller’s amazement. Our micro-lesson there was to give the end users the freedom they naturally expected, including the freedom to decide for themselves what was a balanced layout. If what they produced was unbalanced then the designers would steer them back in the right direction — a much more human corrective.

Those clever layout rules were an anti-feature. They were additional functionality that actually made users’ lives worse. Eventually we removed them.

Anti-features happen in highly experienced mega-corporations, too. In November 2006 Joel O’Software started what became known as “the Windows shutdown crapfest”. He compared the three shutdown options of Apple’s OS X with the astonishing nine or more shutdown options of Microsoft’s Windows Vista. Not only is that confusing for the user, but it was also incredibly painful to develop — Moishe Letvinn, a former Microsoft engineer, tells the sorry story.

But at least the Vista shutdown anti-feature made the problem visible. In the layout logic example, and others I know of, there is silent intelligence at work that leads to confusion and frustration without giving the user any visibility at all of what’s going on.

Anti-features are time-consuming to build in, because any features are time-consuming to build in. But anti-features also consume additional time in their removal.

One way to prevent anti-features is to help the end user determine the long-term consequences of what they want. Of course, you’d hope they’d think of that themselves, but you can’t avoid your responsibilities to the project as a whole if you see something that others have missed.

Another way is to adhere even more fervently to the Agile mantras of delivering early (before every last sub-feature is there), keeping it simple, and focusing ruthlessly on only the highest value work. This way we deliver first a front page without clever corrective layout logic, or one or two shutdown options only, and consider further enhancements later if we find we need them. Suggesting and doing this is easier said than done, of course, but if everyone trusts each other to listen honestly to what they have to say then it’s more likely the decisions made will be the best ones.

Meanwhile we can at least ask ourselves each time: Is this a feature or an anti-feature?



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