The Little Red Button
Bryan T. had worked for decades to amass the skills, expertise and experience to be a true architect, but never quite made the leap. Finally, he got a huge opportunity in the form of an interview with a Silicon Valley semi-conductor firm project manager who was looking for a consultant to do just that. The discussions revolved around an application that three developers couldn’t get functioning correctly in six months, and Bryan was to be the man to reign it in and make it work; he was lured with the promise of having complete control of the software.
Upon starting and spelunking through the code-base, Bryan discovered the degree of total failure that caused them to yield complete control to him. It was your typical hodgepodge of code slapped together with anti-patterns, snippets of patterns claiming to be the real deal, and the usual Assortment-o-WTF™ we’ve all come to expect.
Once he recognized the futility of attempting to fix this mess, Bryan scrapped it and rewrote it as a full-blown modular and compositional application, utilizing MVVM, DDD, SOA, pub/sub; the works. Within three weeks, he had it back to the point it was when he started, only his version actually worked.
While he had righted the sinking ship, it was so successful that the project team started managing it, which proved to be its undoing.
Given the sudden success of the project, the department head committed the application to all the divisions company wide within three quarters – without informing Bryan or anyone else on the team. After all, it’s not like developers need to plan for code and resource scalability issues beyond the original design requirements or anything.
We’ve read countless stories about how difficult it is to work with things like dates and even booleans, but buttons are pretty much solidly understood. Some combination of text, text+image or just image, and an onAction callback pretty much covers it. Oh sure, you can set fg/bg colors and the font, but that’s usually to just give visual clues. Unfortunately, buttons would be the beginning of a downward spiral so steep, that sheer inertia would derail the project.
The project manager decided that images were incredibly confusing, so all buttons should have text instead of icons. Bryan had created several toolbars (because ribbons were shot down already) which, according to management, made the application unusable. In particular, there was a fairly standard user icon with a pencil bullet that was meant to (as you might have guessed it) edit users…
Manager: So I looked at it with Lisa and she had no clue what it was. It was so confusing that no one would ever be able to use our application with it. Buttons should all be text and not images!
OK, let’s forget that ribbons and toolbars have been an application standard for decades now; let’s focus on how confusing this really is. To that end, Bryan did the nanny test. He asked his nanny what she thought it meant and she thought that the button had something to do with people. Awesome, on the ball! After explaining what it did she agreed it made sense.
Bryan: How about we explain it to the users and add a tooltip? Mgr: Tooltips take way too long to display and it’s still incredibly confusing – no one would remember it. We don't want people pressing the wrong buttons! And why are some of the buttons different colors than others?
Bryan wasn’t sure if the manager realized how stupidly he was treating his users, if he was just oblivious, or if he was just pushing for his personal preference. In the end, all the toolbars were removed and the icons were replaced with text. This left an application with assorted colored buttons with text. Unfortunately, some of the buttons were so small that the text got displayed as a truncated string. Also, no amount of explanation could convey that color could also convey meaning (think traffic lights).
As his opinion in UI matters dwindled to nothing over the next couple of months, one of the four BA’s on the team of six pinged Bryan for a meeting about scalability. He wanted to make sure that the project was scalable for the next three quarters. Enter the
Holy Hell Twilight Zone moment in the land where no ribbons or toolbars exist, as the project manager was also involved.
Mgr: I’ve got to make sure we have everything we need to scale for the next three quarters. Bryan: I can’t get the project manager to commit to lay out three weeks of planning for development. I can’t even begin to guess if we have what we need for the next three quarters. Mgr: Well the vice president has a commitment to deploy this to all divisions in the company within three quarters and I’m tasked to make sure we have what we need.
Now Bryan could make up statistics better than 84.3% of people, but what was asked was impossible to determine. Additionally there was a flat out refusal to even vaguely commit to development more than a week or two in advance, so there was heavy resistance just to get the information needed to try!
At this point in time, Bryan felt the need to bail out, but before he left town he grabbed his prized coffee mug from the office. He wasn’t going to be back in town for at least three weeks and from his prior experiences he knew where this was going.
Of course the guy who originally sunk the ship in the first place had a true killer instinct, apparently knew better than Bryan and was left to steer the ship again. All these problems and issues that Bryan saw coming were either over exaggerations or without merit. The project manager felt so comfortable with the architecture and frameworks that Bryan put in place that he felt confident that there was absolutely nothing that he couldn’t handle. After all, he now had the buttons he wanted and understood. Bryan repeatedly asked if he wanted code walkthroughs and was denied. He didn’t need to know what the different colors on the buttons were for. Bryan was even given 40 free consulting hours and even told not to check in his latest bug fixes.
Bryan sent his final farewell with a picture of him drinking from his coffee mug at home and out of state.
A real killer, when handed the ZF-1, would’ve immediately asked about the little red button on the bottom of the gun.