Transparent software: Making complexity understandable

Software is broken. Not because it is not simple. Because it is not transparent. Let me elaborate.

“I don’t think that’s feasible”

That are not the first words we wanted to hear from our client after our presentation.

“I have seen several engineers working over a year just for the concept”

This is complex.

The world tells you that all should be simple. Make it simple. Keep it simple. It is just that simple.

Only when it is not.

Look around you. Nature is beautiful. And complex. The human is beautiful. And complex. Many systems and contexts are complex.

Look inside you. Your thoughts and emotions. Your relationships.

Look at your computer, your phone, your work. Many problems we have and solve everyday are not simple.

Sometimes we think “Oh, why can’t this be simple”. “The software should be simpler”. But KISS won’t save you. Software is broken. But not because it is not simple. We do not want simplicity. We want clarity. We want to understand. Let me elaborate.

I create software for engineers. Engineers are the people who take problems who are fine in theory and work perfectly in a controlled environment like a lab and translate them to the real world. But the real world isn’t simple or controlled. It is messy. The smallest things can blow up your house of cards of theory. These people need software to understand what happens. Through their education and their experience they know what should happen. They are the experts. But the systems and problems they work with are so complex and mostly invisible to the human eye and incomprehensible to the human brain. But today’s engineering software looks like this:

Options all over the place

Make no mistake. This isn’t constrained to engineering problems. Take a look around you. Nowadays there are a million sensors collecting masses of data. Your phone. Your thermostat. Your shoes. Even your tooth brush. Sensors are everywhere. We are collecting more data than ever before. This data gives us a glimpse of the complex underlying system. So we think. But why do we collect them in the first place?
Because we can. We are seeking the holy grail of wisdom. More data creates more information. More information creates more knowledge. And finally we hope that more knowledge gets us a spark of wisdom. But we are just starting out.

The course of technology

The normal way of technology goes something like this: First we are constrained. We try to push the borders. When the field is wide and open we do everything that’s possible. After a while we become more mature and use it to serve a purpose. Software is like that. Collecting data is like that. It is like an addiction. Think about it: Do you influence the data or does the data influence you? Who is in control?

But there’s hope. In order to reason about and come to our decisions we need transparent software. The dictionary defines transparent as:

transparent (adjective)

  • (of a material or article) allowing light to pass through so that objects behind can be distinctly seen
  • easy to perceive or detect
  • having thoughts, feelings, or motives that are easily perceived
  • (of an organization or its activities) open to public scrutiny
  • Physics: transmitting heat or other electromagnetic rays without distortion.
  • Computing: (of a process or interface) functioning without the user being aware of its presence.

Transparent is a tricky word. It seems to be a paradox: on the one hand it means invisible and on the other hand it means easily perceived. Both uses of the word apply to what software needs to be.

No more magic

Software has to help us understand systems and concepts. What happens and what happened. It has to make it clear, comprehensible and detectable. We need to see how the software comes to its conclusions. We need the option to overrule it. The last decision is ours. Software can help us forming a decision but it should never decide on our behalf.
Also: It gets out of our way. We don’t need any more rituals to please the software to do our bidding. Software is a tool. To be a great tool it needs to fit the problem and the person. No one wants to cut with a knife that is all blade. It should adapt to our capabilities. It should fit like a glove. It amplifies not cripples our capabilities. It is made for us. It is transparent.

That’s the goal. But how do we get there?

Maximalistic design or design with ‘Betthupferl’

Minimalistic design is a misnomer. Reducing a complex issue needs more design not less. Designing is about thinking, taking care. If we want to make complex systems understandable we need to think hard. What is the essence of the problem? What information does the expert need to evaluate a situation? All of this expertise is hidden in the heads and the daily routine of the people we design for. So we need to ask, watch and listen to them. Not direct and with a free mind. Throw your preconceptions overboard. Remove your ego. First just observe. Collect. Challenge your assumptions. When you have a good amount of information (with experience you will know when you can start but do not believe you will ever have enough), distill. Distill the essence. And then add. That little extra. The details. The cues which foster understanding.
When you stay the night in a hotel and in your white and clean bed you find a little sweet on your pillow. You are delighted. In German we call this ‘Betthupferl’.
This little extra you add is just this. The user feels cared for. He sees that someone has gone the extra mile, has thought deeply about him. The essence is not enough. You need some details. To weave the parts to together to form a whole. This can be extra information when the user needs it. This can be a shortcut when the context is right. Or an animation which guides the eye. Or or or…
Important is that it does not confuse or blur the essence. It should support. Silently, almost invisible.

Successful patterns for software developers

Some lessons I learned

Be good at everything but better at something

Diversify. Knowing and working in different domains, using different programming languages and tools and handling diverse tasks enriches your creativity as a developer. It keeps your mind flexible and inspires you. Many can agree on that. But on the other hand you should find your niche, your personal joy, your home ground. Different developers have different personalities, different talents and different preferences. People shine when they work with something they like. They are more happy, more productive and more creative. But not all developers in a team or company have the same favorites. Your company should encourage you getting better at your specialty. Work on your strengths.
I like dynamic languages, others prefer static languages. Some developers like to craft desktop software, some web applications. Others concentrate on the UI or controlling robots or sensors. Some ponder over algorithms while others are happy with designing visualizations.
When your team has a common ground but everybody has strengths in different fields everybody can learn from and supplement each other. Synergy is created.

Be support, project manager, admin, …

Developers in our company wear many hats. Sometimes even literally (but that’s another story). If a developer is responsible or takes part in other roles of the project his view is widened. When he talks with customers he not only understands their needs better but also can suggest different ways or solutions. His domain knowledge grows and he can identify pain points. Working with the platforms where the application is deployed and the systems involved also strengthens his grasp of the environment the application lives in. As a project manager he learns to juggle time and scope. He learns to work with constraints and different forces pulling not only the code but the whole project.

Optimize for forgiveness

A user deleted a post accidentally. What do we normally do? We introduce a security question to establish a barrier for deletion. What’s this? We make the UX worse because we think it is the user’s fault and we need to protect him from himself. A better way would be to don’t delete the post but make it invisible. This way he can undo if he wrongly deleted the post. But what about updates? Updating a post overwrites the old content. What if this happened not on purpose? A better way would be to record the last state of the post and undo the update if necessary. Todays computers have so much memory and are so powerful that an application can be allowed to be merciful. It can forgive its users when they did something wrong and want to revert it.

It is not about you

This is one of the hardest lessons to learn. Your work is not about you. Yes, it reflects you in a way. But it does not define you, you define the work. If your code has bugs or you make a mistake and accidentally delete important data, take a deep breath and think. Get help. Plan your steps, discuss with others what to do. Tell them you made a mistake. Everybody does. Do not try to fix it yourself. Do not hide it. Focus on the problem at hand. Not your shame or feeling of guilt. (This goes hand in hand with optimizing for forgiveness)

Talk and listen

Feedback. One of the most important things in software development. Talk to your users. Listen. Again and again. Often talking 10 minutes about a task or problem can result in hours of work saved. The bug you couldn’t reproduce? It was in a different area. The feature you thought was nearly impossible? With a slight change it is much easier. This also goes for everything else. Deployments and commits. Design decisions. You are the expert in your domain, the customer in his. Act accordingly. Tell him the options he has and what will be the consequences. Don’t let him guess. He shouldn’t do your work.