Batteries not included

When I bought a label printing device lately, it came bundled with a label tape roll. That suggested instant usage – no need to think of additional parts upfront. Only tousb-battery-little find out that, you’ve guessed it already, batteries weren’t included. A bunch of standardized parts missing (Murphy’s law applied) and the whole ready-to-use package was rendered useless. The time and effort it took me to get the batteries was the same as to get the label tape I really wanted to use instead of the bundled one.

This is a common pattern not only with device manufacturers, but with software developers, too.

Instant feature – just add effort

Frequently, a software comes “nearly” ready-to-use. All you have to do to make it run is

  • upgrade to the latest graphics drivers
  • install some database system (we won’t tell you how as it’s not our business)
  • create some file or directory manually
  • login with administrator rights once (or worse: always) to gather write access to the registry or configuration file
  • review and change the complete configuration prior to first usage

The last point is a personal pet peeve of mine.

It all boils down to the question if a software or a feature is really ready-to-use. Most of the work you have to do manually is tedious or highly error-prone. Why not add support for this apparently crucial steps to the software in the first place?

It works instantly – with my setup

A common mistake made by developers is to forget about the history of a feature emerging in the development labs. The history includes all the little requirements (a writeable folder here, an existing database table there) that will naturally be present on the developer’s machine when she finishes work, because fulfilling them was part of the development process.

If the same developer was forced to recreate the feature on a fresh machine, she would notice all these steps with ease and probably automate or support (e.g. documentate) them, least to save herself the work of wading through it a third time.

But given that most developers regard a feature “finished”, “done” or “resolved” when the code was accepted by the repository (and hopefully the continuous integration system), the aching of the users wont reach them.

This is a case of lacking feedback.

Feel the pain – publicly

To close this open feedback loop, we established a habit of “adopting” features and bringing them to the user in person to overcome the problem of “nearly done”. If you can’t make your own feature run on the client’s machine within a few seconds, is it really that usable and “ready”? The unavoidable presence of the whole process – from the first feature request to the installed and proven-to-work software acts as a deterrent to fall for the “works on my machine” style of programming. It creates a strong relationship between the user, a feature and the developer as a side-effect.

We’ve seen quite a few junior developers experiencing a light bulb moment (and heavy sweating) in front of the customer. This is the hot-wired feedback loop working. In most cases, the situation (a feature requiring non-trivial effort to be run) will not repeat ever.

Batteries are part of the product

If your product (e.g. software) isn’t usable because some standard part (e.g. a folder) is missing, make sure you add these parts to the delivery package. It is a very pleasant experience for the user to just unwrap a software and use it right away. It shows that you’ve been cared for.

One thought on “Batteries not included

  1. Pingback: Merry christmas - and check your candles before you light them « Schneide Blog

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