Always apply the Principle Of Least Astonishment to yourself, too

Great principles have the property that while they can be stated in a concise form, they have far-reaching consequences one can fully appreciate after many years of encountering them.

One of these things is what is known as the Principle of Least Astonishment / Principle of Least Surprise (see here or here). As stated there, in a context of user interface design, its upshot is “Never surprise the user!”. Within that context, it is easily understandable as straightforward for everyone that has ever used any piece of software and notices that never once was he glad that the piece didn’t work as suggested. Or did you ever feel that way?

Surprise is a tool for willful suspension, for entertainment, a tool of unnecessary complication; exact what you do not want in the things that are supposed to make your job easy.

Now we can all agree about that, and go home. Right? But of course, there’s a large difference between grasping a concept in its most superficial manifestation, and its evasive, underlying sense.

Consider any software project that cannot be simplified to a mere single-purpose-module with a clear progression, i.e. what would rather be a script. Consider any software that is not just a script. You might have a backend component with loads of requirements, you have some database, some caching functionality, then you want a new frontend in some fancy fresh web technology, and there’s going to be some conflict of interests in your developer team.

There will be some rather smart ways of accomplishing something and there will be rather nonsmart ways. How do you know which will be which? So there, follow your principle: Never surprise anyone. Not only your end user. Do not surprise any other team member with something “clever”. In most situations,

  1. it’s probably not clever at all
  2. the team member being fooled by you is yourself

Collaboration is a good tool to let that conflict naturally arise. I mean the good kind of conflict, not the mistrust, denial of competency, “Ctrl+A and Delete everything you ever wrote!”-kind of conflict. Just the one where someone would tell you “hm. that behaviour is… astonishing.”

But you don’t have a team member in every small project you do. So just remember to admit the factor of surprise in every thing you leave behind. Do not think “as of right now, I understand this thing, ergo this is not of any surprise to anyone, ever”. Think, “when I leave this code for two months and return, will there be anything… of surprise?”

This principle has many manifestations. As one of Jakob Nielsen’s usability heuristics, it’s called “Recognition rather than Recall”. In a more universal way of improving human performance and clarity, it’s called “Reduce Cognitive Load”. It has a wide range of applicability from user interfaces to state management, database structures, or general software architecture. I like the focus of “Surprise”, because it should be rather easy for you to admit feeling surprised, even by your own doing.

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