Michal Migurski's notebook, listening post, and soapbox. Subscribe to this blog. Check out the rest of my site as well.

Jan 3, 2009 4:30am

programming: like pulling teeth

Tom linked to this 2002 conversation between Kent Beck (programmer) and Alan Cooper (interaction designer), "Extreme Programming vs. Interaction Design":

Kent Beck is known as the father of "extreme programming," a process created to help developers design and build software that effectively meets user expectations. Alan Cooper is the prime proponent of interaction design, a process with similar goals but different methodology. We brought these two visionaries together to compare philosophies, looking for points of consensus - and points of irreconcilable difference.

So they reach one point of irreconcilable difference about midway through:

Beck: OK, wait. I agreed with you very close to 100 percent, then you just stepped off the rails. I don't see why this new specialist has to do his or her job before construction begins?
Cooper: It has to happen first because programming is so hellishly expensive and the cost of programming is like the cost of pulling teeth. ... Building software isn't like slapping a shack together; it's more like building a 50-story office building or a giant dam.
Beck: I think it's nothing like those. If you build a skyscraper 50 stories high, you can't decide at that point, oh, we need another 50 stories and go jack it all up and put in a bigger foundation.
Cooper: That's precisely my point.
Beck: But in the software world, that's daily business.
Cooper: That's pissing money away and leaving scar tissue.

The interview might as well stop there, because this is the One, Central, Insurmountable difference between these two approaches toward development work. XP is adapted to a context where motivation is expensive and change is cheap. Interaction design (at least how Cooper explains it) is adapted to a context where motivation is cheap and change is expensive. It should be obvious that contexts of both kinds can exist in the world: there are situations where it's easy to return to previous decisions and modify them (software, for one), and there are other situations where it's not (e.g. buildings, dams).

I think in this particular case, Cooper is pretty much wrong. They're talking about software, so we know that change is relatively cheap in the context of this conversation - cheaper than buildings, anyway. They just start to touch on the way in which running code becomes an object to think with, a thing to learn from: "you can build a program that improves with age instead of having it born powerful and gradually degrading" (Beck). Cooper believes that it's possible to suss out requirements and desires by talking to people about what they want and getting sign-off on a promise, but experience shows that people's desires change in response to novelty. Henry Ford's "faster horse" line comes to mind, as does perpetual beta wunderkind Flickr: starting with something that works enough to elicit use and reaction trumps big, up-front design when your changes are low cost. There are contexts where change is high-cost: skyscrapers, movies, mass-produced objects. Software, especially the astounding percentage of the world's software that's written by companies for their own internal use, is not one of them.

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