Digital Minefield

Why The Machines Are Winning

More Than Logic


Last week’s post said programming was “More Than Engineering.” I believe there are eight essential programmer character traits. Four are positive: Persistence, Problem-Solving, Planning, and Play. Four are negative: Pride, Pedantry, Perfectionism, and Prejudice.

Beyond character traits, which can be enhanced or suppressed, there are three additional skills that programmers must practice to their utmost. These are Clarity, Empathy, and Imagination.

Clarity is a two-fold goal. The behavior of the program and expected responses from users must be clear and unambiguous. Also, the code itself must be clearly written for any programmer to maintain it.

Messages, especially error messages, are useless if not clear. A recent attempt to copy a file told me only that it could not be copied. Was this a source or a destination problem? I could see the file wasn’t copied, so what was the purpose of the message?

The computer equivalent of putting yourself in another’s shoes is to put yourself at another’s screen and keyboard. Empathy, in programming, is more than a feeling. It’s goal is to anticipate how users will respond to your software—on their machines.

The purpose of multiple windows on a screen was not conceived so each window would take over the whole screen. Yet, that’s what I often see. Graphic User Interfaces are highly customizable, but many programs ignore the possibilities.

My personal pet peeve is windows that ignore the location of the task bar. It can be top, bottom, left, or right, but more than half the programs I use expect it to be at the bottom. (Good if you sit above the screen looking down. I sit below and look up.)

While clarity and empathy are crucial, it takes imagination to create a proper response for every possible situation. Users interact with a total environment, not just this program’s code.

Aside from the purpose of the program, and the myriad things that can go wrong, there is the universe of possible program events—including the illogical. The goal of imagination is to make it more likely these events will be handled safely.

Finally, let’s return to the last character trait: Prejudice. I mean this in the most general sense, i.e., all assumptions are bad. Lack of clarity assumes a message is clear when it’s not. Lack of empathy assumes every user’s machine is just like yours.

Assuming the unlikely will never happen and therefore needs no code to handle it, cripples imagination. Nothing makes code worthless quicker than programming only for the probable.

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