пятница, 24 октября 2014 г.

Fixing the Wrong Problem, Once Again

The last week I spent two or three hours looking for the cause of a bug really close to the place where it was actually located – but not close enough. From the exact moment when I opened the bug description in Visual Studio everything pointed me in the right direction – towards a couple lines in our code base, fixing which would have resolved the issue. However, when reproducing it according to the steps outlined in the issue tracker and exploring the related behavior of the system I have caught a glimpse of something peculiar, that could have been the reason of my issue, and it made me waste a lot of time on trying to fix the wrong problem.

A particularly important detail about this new problem that I discovered was that its incorrectness didn’t look like something trivial and minor. It seemed to me that I was looking at a very severe bug spanning a number of components of our system. At some point, I was almost sure that I have found a really big problem, much broader than what the reporter could have thought. This feeling of stumbling upon something significant that might have far-fetching consequences quickly made me forget my initial objective.

Moreover, I was excited in a very negative way by the idea that I see something that other devs on the team have overlooked, and the desire to show everyone how cool I am pushed me even further away from what I should have been fixing. The fact that the newly found problem looked much more complex than what followed from the original description also meant that it was more interesting. Hence, my eagerness to fight it instead of taking a broader look and examining all the aspects of the problematic process.

It took me a couple hours of digging and a relatively long break to persuade myself that I should try and go through all the steps that cause data corruption and the related error. Initially, I have stopped my attempts to find the exact source of the issue once I had spotted something strange and unexpected. Should I just follow the description of the issue, carefully crafted by the QA engineer, up to the point where the problem is clearly seen, I would have reached the root of the problem much faster – maybe in a matter of minutes.

What happened instead is actually very familiar to me – that’s not the first time I make this mistake. From time to time, when tracing down a bug I face something strange-looking in the middle of the way and start exploring it. I do this despite being fully aware of the idea that any problem must be solved from where it manifests itself down to its actual reason – without taking any shortcuts. I know that one should under no circumstances skip any steps on this way, but I still do this occasionally and it never brings me close to where I would be happy to find myself.

This exact problem is what the strategy of moving slowly and in tiny steps aims to solve. For me the nature of the issue began getting clearer once I pushed aside the keyboard and started writing – with pen and paper. These tools make one work slower, they don’t allow to hack one’s way through the code and skip crucial points. Moreover, they facilitate deeper and calmer thinking, while rapidly stepping over the lines of code in a debugger or executing numerous variations of an SQL query usually descends one into a state where only wild guesses and ‘let-us-try-this’ hacks are possible.

My takeaway is once again that one must not rush to solve any problem that they happen to see – frequently what we initially perceive as incorrect behavior turns out to be desired in the end. Instead, one should work towards fixing what they aimed at first. In many cases problem solving works better if one maintains a queue of the problems – not a stack. Fortunately, even though our minds seem to be using a stack internally, we can always push extra problems out of it – to a bug-tracker or to a good old sheet of paper – so that the original, the right problem can be fully comprehended and solved, giving way to new glorious fixes.

пятница, 10 октября 2014 г.

User's Expectations and Business Process

During a recent discussion with my friends I have faced an interesting contrast between what looked like the right thing to do in a mobile application and what a more traditional UX common sense suggests. While the way I thought the application should work seemed pretty reasonable from the business point of view, my friends were reluctant to accept it. The strength of their resistance to my approach descended me into doubtfulness and made me search for flaws and the ways to align the app’s behavior to the expectations of potential users without losing the emphasis on the business process.

My task was very simple and can be described in general terms without diving into details. The application deals with jobs, which user is supposed to create. In addition to that, he needs to do some work with the existing jobs – particularly assign workers to them. In terms of UI, this boils down to several application pages, only two of which are of interest now. The first one provides the inputs to set various attributes of a new job. The second view comes with a list of jobs, which were just created but haven’t been assigned a worker yet – user picks one there and selects workers for it. Once this is done, the job leaves the list and moves further along the pipeline. The problem sits right between these two pages: views on how the transition between them should happen when user fills all the properties of a new job and presses Create  might differ a lot.

One approach, which you will find in many widespread feed-based applications and which looks quite natural, suggests that once the job is created it should appear on the top of the list and be the first thing to draw user’s attention there. That happens, for example, when you post something to Twitter or Instagram – when you tap Post in the corresponding application, you are transferred back to the feed and see your new photo or message added on top of it. This is the approach that my friends were proposing. It actually has lots of benefits: user sees the item they have just added and can not only check that everything is correct, but also take some action. For example, right after publishing this entry I will want to look through it to locate things like typos or extra blank lines between paragraphs, and it is great that the blogging engine shows me the latest post first. However, for my application it didn’t feel suitable.

What I have chosen to do instead was to keep the list sorted by creation time in ascending order – the older the job the higher it appears in the list. Moreover, the app doesn’t scroll the list down to the newest item when the user adds it. For my friends this made an impression that when the list is already long new jobs just vanish unnoticed somewhere under the tower of older ones. While that certainly looks like that, there are some reasons to lean towards this approach. In my opinion, these fully justify the initial confusion that can arise from the fact that the feed does not work the way Twitter does.

Firstly and most importantly, the application’s purpose is to assist an employee in their interaction with a queue of customers and the pool of workers. In such a situation, when service time is critical, the older jobs are likely the hotter ones, meaning that if you have a job, which lies unassigned for 30 minutes already, you definitely want to process it before the one created a moment ago. Furthermore, since customers are served in FIFO order, in a situation when the list of unassigned jobs is already long and all workers are busy, arrival of a new customer should not interrupt the ongoing process. Under these circumstances, the manager handling the queue – our user – only has to put the new customer on the queue and forget about them. It is not necessary and possibly even harmful to draw too much attention to this new customer – instead of messing with a client, who has to wait for their turn, we should first process the jobs, which entered the queue earlier. (Of course, I don’t mean that the manager should literally forget about new customers, but he must be focused on the ones who have already spent some time in the queue.)

These considerations make me confident about the second approach, which pays close attention to the process that the application is supposed to help with – maybe in favor of complying with user’s initial expectations. At the same time, the discussion that we had made me thoroughly consider the problem. The least important and most obvious thought that I had in relation to it is that our views on how something should work and look might be affected too much by the things, which we interact with on the daily basis, despite the fact that the difference between the two can be vast. Here I don’t mean that my friends are totally addicted to Twitter. Instead, when they voiced their concerns over my design I have found myself in doubt and seriously contemplating adoption of the more popular approach. It looks like we are too used to feeds of tweets, photos, links and news growing from the ground up and sometimes oversee the fact that not everything should work this way.

More important takeaway is that doing the right thing is not always the same as taking a popular and well-established approach to UI. This flows naturally from the previous paragraph and merely suggests that before jumping on the bandwagon of any time-honored and user-approved UX pattern we must carefully study the goals of our products and how they can help users achieve their own objectives. This means that behind any application there is a process, which we try to enhance, improve and optimize and it is vital to take every detail of it into account when designing the application.

Last but not least, what we face here is the contradiction between user’s expectations and the goals of the software. When facing something like this, we should not forget that keeping users comfortable and amused is not the only purpose of a mobile (or any other) application. It should be easy to work with a product and the latter must not stay in the way of doing one’s job, but a business app occasionally has to make the user uncomfortable and draw their attention to something that they might be unhappy about. In the end, kittens, food and beautiful landscapes are for Instagram, while business apps are all about doing business.