Smoothing the Condescending Onramp

If you ever need a dose of humility, solve a non-trivial problem and then watch a Real Actual User try to figure out how to use it.

In my second professional job, when I was a system administrator at HP, I worked in the laser printer group. One afternoon, someone walked by my desk and asked me to do a user interaction study. I followed her to a little lab area, where she handed me a list of tasks, and asked me to complete them.

I did, except that I misread the icon on the copier and put in the source pages upside down, and made ten warm and blank pieces of paper. As soon as that happened, I understood the icon and why I'd misinterpreted it.

I never heard the results of the study, but I hope my stubborn confusion ended up improving the product.

User experience (and real user experience, not the fake user experience stuff that says users are clueless and incapable of all of the complexity of navigating the cereal aisle of an American grocery store and thus interfaces must degenerate to a single beveled button which says "DO IT", do you like my black turtleneck?) is fascinating. What's clear to you, you who understand the internal model of the software, is perfectly opaque to users. Users know the results they want, but not necessarily how to achieve them.

Making things easy for novices—for people who don't have a correct internal model of the software—can be compatible with making powerful software. Consider the Perl 5 standard Unicode preamble necessary to convince Perl to use the defaults you probably want to handle anything-but-Latin-1 correctly.

(When user complaints of "My code doesn't work!" get met on PerlMonks and the Perl Beginners List and elsewhere with "What's the error message?", you know the languages, libraries, tools, and ecosystem could do more to help people debug their own code.)

You see the problem when books and other tutorial materials say "Error checking is left as an exercise for the reader", as if the burden of writing correct code or the increased page count is far more important than the desire to help new programmers learn how to code well.

I'm not only talking about better defaults (like strict enabled with use 5.014;). I'm not only talking about writing and collecting good Perl tutorials. (Part of the reason Modern Perl: the Book is available for free online is to continue to cultivate the culture of making great tutorial material available to anyone and everyone.)

With that said, I do despise the attitude of "You have to be clueful enough to use the proper incantation at the start of your programs before you'll get help on PerlMonks". Sure, those of us who know Perl now had to learn the hard way that symbolic references and global variables make our code harder to manage, that a unified testing system can only improve the CPAN, and that agreeing on an interoperable OO syntax (if not implementation) lets us concentrate on solving problems, not rebuilding Greenspun frameworks, but that's no reason to force the same learning curve on novices.

We'll never remove the essential complexity from programming (to do so would require us to remove the essential complexity from the problems we're trying to solve). We can smooth out the onramp for new programmers. That requires us to think like new programmers and to understand what they're trying to do and why.

Sometimes that recommends that those of us who see a question and think "Wow, everyone knows how to use a hash! What's wrong with you for not understanding this?" to shut up. (Sometimes the best person to help a new programmer is someone who was recently new.) Often times that requires us to listen and look for the deeper question.

That probably recommends us to be a little gentler on the audiences we reach when we publish text and code. As Tom Dale wrote in Best Practices Exist for a Reason:

writing code before you have an expert-level understanding is okay.

(The whole post and its comments are... enlightening.)

Ultimately I expect the real point is to know who you're writing for. If you're only ever writing for your own amusement and you're willing to cut off everyone who doesn't share your level of knowledge, that's one thing. If you're writing to help other people—even if they have just started using Perl today—perhaps there are ways you can smooth the onramp for them a little bit more. After all, the things we think are easy now are because we understand the intricacies of lexical binding and scope and default topicalization and eager versus iteration file reading and so on.

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This page contains a single entry by chromatic published on May 2, 2012 2:42 PM.

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