Saturday 23 May 2009

In praise of everyday software

Yesterday I was sitting on the bench in our back garden doing what I do best ... very little with a tin of beer. It occurred to me that there is a mindset that values software almost purely on the "OOOO AHHHH" factor it generates.

The thought that a computer's installed software base is considered to be a "gallery" of developmental excellence made me cringe a little. When we as developers type into the blank canvas of a new project, we have in our minds eye the finished package and how wonderful it will be. However time, talent (or lack there of), and budgetary constraints too often blur the edges of that internal paradigm of excellence and we end up with something much more ordinary.

I was then drawn to architecture in my internal perambulations ... take for example a street lined by buildings, but the totality of our experience of that street is defined by the synergy between the buildings and the empty spaces created between them. When Barcelona started its regeneration in the 80's, it was realised by reconsidering and enhancing these empty spaces. There were a few challenging new builds, but around these were placed the new public spaces so envied by other European cities. These spaces are surrounded in the main by "ordinary" buildings. The developemental energy was spent on the actual place rather than the beauty of the new builds.

The suggestion that architects (and I include the software pencil suckers here) should improve their output by engaging in the everyday aspects of people's lives is a bit daunting. Taken to the extreme, it reminded me of Adolf Loos' short story, "The Poor Rich Man". An architect is commissioned by a Poor Rich Man to design and build him a house. The architect not only designs a house but goes as far as designing every detail of the Poor Rich Man's home; he anticipated everything, even the pattern on his slippers. One day, the Poor Rich Man's family offered him birthday presents, but the architect, summoned to find correct places for them in his composition, was furious that a client had dared to accept presents about which he, the architect, had not been consulted. For the house was altogether finished, as was his client: he was complete. This holistic design of an environment might be some architects dream, but it usually becomes other people's nightmares. Accidents and incidents are essential for real life. Building Architects design spaces for people to live in, Software architects design applications for users to work in.

This idea is a bit more interesting, I hope. UIs tend to become attraction parks for programmers to "perform" in. The strength of an architect is to build "good" applications using and playing with the existing context rather than try to create a stand-alone object that looks good and fits only inside an ideal sterilised environment.

Part of the developer's job is to "service the user's need for instant gratification", the "ooooo ahhhhhh" factor of software. but how often have we seen software that looked wonderful but it was functionally shite? (Yes Vista I AM looking at you) On the other hand there is such an unpleasant condescension in separating the users from ourselves as developers and giving them something that we wouldn't consider good enough.

I suppose what I am trying to say is that we should not confuse modesty and mediocrity.

Ordinary software is honest and without pretensions, a simple shed can be far more interesting architecturally than a shed trying to be a town hall or a Greek temple, (ask Grand Master Beetroot Chris Coates)

There can be a real beauty and intelligence in the simplicity of an application, often involuntary, but we shouldn't dismiss it. I remember an insignificant small building in Belfast city centre. It had interesting proportions and clever details. six months after the redevelopment of the big blue Victoria Street shopping centre, it had been "done up" and is now a horrible thing. It is mutton dressed as lamb, it performs the same function and does it as well as it did before. But now where it had been pleasing in its simplicity, now I shiver as I pass it.

... and there is our challenge. Find the beauty in simplicity, join the look and feel to the function in such a way that we don't sacrifice either ...

...and then it was time for another beer

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