Thursday, December 23, 2004

The Devil is in the details

I absolutely hate about fifty percent of my job. Don't get me wrong, I wouldn't want to do anything else at this point in life, but there's a big part of the job that gets on my nerves. Give me a non-trivial problem to solve, and I can come up with a solution that would knock a lot of socks off. Tell me what an application has to do, and I can come up with what is usually a decent, often best-case architecture in next to no time, and get from there to solid code in a flash.

Just don't ask me to create a compelling UI, at least not for the Notes client. No, let's make that anywhere -- the few really nice web UIs I've ever designed were probably accidents. I shouldn't be trusted with fonts, tables and colours on a computer.

I'm not artistically challenged. Give me a canvas, oils and brushes and I'll paint you something you'd want to hang. Hell, I'll paint you something you'd want to buy. Give me some fine parchment or the rags to make some real paper, a collection of cured quills and reeds, a knife and some inks and I can show you what calligraphy can be. I just can't translate any of that to the computer. I can't do it in an illustration or paint package, and I certainly can't do it with declarative statements, at least not without far too many hours of trial and error. Now, if you can show me what it's supposed to look like, spec the colours, etc., I can get from your picture to a working version quickly and painlessly. That's mechanical. It's the creative aspect I can't do if there's a machine between me and the work.

I would love to find myself in a place where I could just throw the UI to a designer. I've heard that HTML support in Notes 7 is supposed to be a huge improvement over what's in Notes 6 (that's apparently a last-minute decision, if I read people like Debbie Branco correctly, so it probably won't be true in current betas). I wonder if it will have progressed to the point that a simple code monkey like me can delegate the artsy bits to people who are actually good at that sort of thing.


Anonymous said...

I know exactly what you mean. I graduated university with a degree in fine art. I have exibited in several galleries, I even made a modest living at it for several years, but my GUI work sucks. No other way to put it. I just cannot get it on a screen in a pleasant and useful way.

So, don't feel alone. There aren't too many good looking GUIs even by the professionals.

David Bohlin

Anonymous said...

Its all fine to be an artist, but I think its only the half of it. In software you need to combine, in appropriate parts, utility and esthetic. Its not easy, its elusive and there are few examples out there to learn from.

And there is a huge difference between the just-good-enough and the just-right. Sometimes it may be hard to pinpoint the parts that make it better as they are so small but they do make all the difference. Of course, this is assuming there are no cardinal flaws in the just-good-enough version. So close but so obviously not there. I imagine that a UI genius would easily design a just-righ UI without so much as an iota of effort. But I am told that overnight successes are 20 years in the making.

I listened to a documentary about how ABBA, in which the two guys themselves described how they wrote some of their songs. They would spend weeks looking for the right note. It was like waiting for a dragon to come out of the cave they said. You have to stay out in front of the cave all the time. You cannot afford one moment's rest because that's when he is coming out and you have missed him. Basically it took weeks for all the rubish notes to sort of fall away. I guess it was like a brute force search through their subconscious store of musical notes for that perfect one. And then it may have taken just as long to polish off with the sound engineer.

One thing comes through strongly and that is the element of time. There is no substitute for it. Maybe OSS with its massively parrallel approach is able to reduce it but so far this effort has managed to immitate, not innovate. And I think it is well known that good software (link to JoelOnSoftware) takes time.


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