Transparent software: Making complexity understandable

“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.

Don’t let the tools use you

In today’s software development we use many tools to help us doing our job. Many of them are indispensable. But don’t make yourself a slave of the tool.
When we create schedules based on our estimates we have a great way to communicate how much work we think needs to be done. But don’t let the schedule fool you: you made an estimate based on your knowledge before you began to work. Maybe you need to change the infrastructure, maybe the new change interferes with a past one, in short you gain knowledge on your way. This knowledge can lead you to adapt or even rework your schedule. Your usual approach for accounting unforeseen obstacles might be to include a risk “pad”. Why not use your new gained knowledge to communicate with your client? Maybe a small change to the planned feature is much easier to implement and the client doesn’t even need the extra flexibility. Or the feature is not that important or worth. Don’t try to hold the schedule at all costs. Estimates are a communication tool not a promise we need to fulfill. (related: read also a 37signals post on It’s not a promise it’s a guess)
Or take a look at your favorite editor or IDE: if you happen to use a new language, source code management system or another new tool, the chances are high that your IDE doesn’t support all features or any features at all. You may be tempted to adapt your way to what your IDE supports. If that suits you it’s definitely ok but don’t let the IDE determine how you make use of the features.
When you use software metrics to measure and control the quality of your code you get a lot of numbers and graphs and hints. Use them when you think they benefit you. Don’t just adhere to them, they are a guideline for you, not a law.