Tuesday, November 2, 2010

"Might Be Misleading" is misleading

My books (Building Skills in Programming, Building Skills in Python and Building Skills in OO Design) develop a steady stream of email. [Also, as a side note, I need to move them to the me.com server, Apple is decommissioning the homepage.mac.com domain.]

The mail falls into several buckets.

Thanks. Always a delight. Keep 'em coming.

Suggestions. These are suggestions for new topics. Recently, I've had a few requests for Python 3 coverage. I'm working with a publisher on this, and hope -- before too long -- to have real news.

Corrections. I get a lot of these. A lot. Keep 'em coming. I didn't pay a copy editor; I tried to do it myself. It's hard and I did a poor job. More valuable than spelling corrections are technical corrections. (I'm happy to report that I don't get as many of these.) Technical corrections are the most serious kind of correction and I try to fix those as quickly as possible.

Source Code Requests. No. I don't supply any source. If I send you the source, what skill did you build? Asking for source? Not a skill that has much value, IMHO. If you want to learn to program, you have to create the source yourself. That is the job. Sorry for making you work, but you have to actually do the work. There's no royal road to programming.

The "Other" Bucket

I get some emails that I file under "other" because they're so funny. They have the following boilerplate.

"Code fragment [X] might is misleading because [Y]."

First, it's a complaint, not a question. That's not very helpful. That's just complaining. Without a suggested improvement, it's the worst kind of bare negativity.

The best part is that — without exception — the person sending the email was not mislead. They correctly understood the code examples.

Clearly, the issue isn't that the code is "misleading" in the usual sense of "lying" or "mendacious". If it was actually misleading, then (a) they wouldn't have understood it and (b) there'd be a proper question instead of a complaint.

Since they correctly understood it, what's misleading?

User Interface Reviews

In software development, we used to go through the "misleading" crap-ola in user interface reviews. In non-Agile ("waterfall") development, we have to get every nuance, every aspect, every feature of the UI completely specified before we can move on. Everyone has to hand-wring over every word, every font choice, field order, button placement, blah, blah and blah.

It seems like 80% of the comments are "label [X] might be misleading". The least useful comment, of course, is this sort of comment with no suggestion. The least useful reviewer is the person who (1) provides a negative comment and, when asked for an improvement, (2) calls a meeting of random people to come up with replacement text.

[Hint: If you eventually understood the misleading label, please state your understanding in your own words. Often, hilarity ensues when their stated understanding cycles back to the original label.]

The "label [X] might be misleading" comment is — perhaps — the most expensive nuisance comment ever. Projects wind up spinning through warrens of rat-holes chasing down some verbiage that is acceptable. After all, you can't go over the waterfall until the entire UI is specified, right?

Worse, of course, the best sales people do not interpose themselves into the sales process. They connect prospective customers with products (or services). Really excellent sales people can have trouble making suggestions. Their transparency is what makes them good. It's not sensible demanding suggestions from them.

Underneath a "Might Be Misleading" comment, the person complaining completely understood the label. They were not actually mislead at all. If it was misleading, then (a) they wouldn't have understood it and (b) there'd be a proper question instead of a complaint.

Thank goodness for Agile product owners who can discard the bad kind of negativity. The right thing to do is put a UI in front of more than one user and bypass the negativity with a consensus that the UI actually is usable and isn't really misleading.

Might Be Misleading

The "Might be Misleading" comments are often code-speak for "I don't like it because..." And the reason why is often "because I had to think." I know that thinking is bad.

I understand that Krug's famous Don't Make me Think is the benchmark in usability. And I totally agree that some thinking is bad.

There are two levels of thinking.
  • Thinking about the problem.
  • Thinking about the UI and how the UI models the problem.
Krug's advice is clear. Don't make users think about the UI and how the UI models the problem. Users still have to think about the problem itself.

In the case of UI labels which "Might Be Misleading", we have to figure out if it's the problem or the UI that folks are complaining about. In many cases, parts of the problem are actually hard and no amount of UI fixup can ever make the problem easier.

Not Completely Accurate

One of the most common UI label complaints is that the label isn't "completely" accurate. They seem to object to fact that a UI label can only contain a few words and they have to actually understand the few words. I assume that folks who complain about UI labels also complain about light switches having just "on" and "off" as labels. Those labels aren't "completely" accurate. It should say "power on". Indeed it should say "110V AC power connected". Indeed it should say "110V AC power connected through load". Indeed it should say "110V AC 15 A power connected via circuit labeled #4 through load with ground".

Apparently this is news. Labels are Summaries.

No label can be "completely" accurate. You heard it here first. Now that you've been notified, you can stop complaining about labels which "might be misleading because they're not completely accurate." They can't be "completely" accurate unless the label recapitulates the entire problem domain description and all source code leading to the value.


In too many cases of "Might Be Misleading," people are really complaining that they don't like the UI label (or the code example) because the problem itself is hard. I'm sympathetic that the problem domain is hard and requires thinking.

Please, however, don't complain about what "Might Be Misleading". Please try to focus on "Actually Is Misleading."

Before complaining, please clarify your understanding.

Here's the rule. If you eventually understood it, it may be that the problem itself is hard. If the problem is hard, fixing the label isn't going to help, is it?

If the problem is hard, you have to think. Some days are like that. The UI designer and I apologize for making you think. Can we move on now?

If the label (or example) really is wrong, and you can correct it, that's a good thing. Figure out what is actually misleading. Supply the correction. Try to escalate "Might Be Misleading" to "Actually Mislead Someone". Specifics matter.

Also, please remember that labels are summaries. At some point, details must be elided. If you have trouble with the concept of "summary", you can do this. (1) Write down all the details that you understand. Omit nothing. (2) Rank the details in order of importance. (3) Delete words to pare the description down to an appropriate length to fit in the UI. When you're done, you have a suggestion.

No comments:

Post a Comment