June 2013

Volume 28 Number 6

Editor's Note - Unbridled Expectations

By Michael Desmond | June 2013

Michael DesmondComedian Louis C.K., well known for his deeply cynical and at times wildly off-color rants, has an extended riff on how crazy it is for people to be disappointed with wonderful things like air travel and cell phones. I ran across an interview Louis C.K. did on the Conan O’Brien show describing his observations, and realized that what he’s talking about poses a real challenge for software developers.

“Everything is amazing and nobody is happy,” he told O’Brien, describing how he grew up with rotary phones that made you dread calling people with zeroes in their number, because it took so long to dial. Today, a smartphone UI will pause for a moment, and the immediate reaction is to get angry at a thing that, just a decade or so ago, would’ve seemed miraculous.

“Flying is the worst one,” Louis C.K. continued, scoffing at people who describe airline flights as horror stories, as if sitting on the tarmac for 40 minutes before takeoff is a calamity. “Oh really? What happened next? Did you fly through the air incredibly like a bird? Did you partake in the miracle of human flight, you non-contributing zero? You’re flying! It’s amazing.”

Louis C.K. then described a flight he was on with in-flight Wi-Fi service and Internet access. When the Wi-Fi suddenly went out, a man behind him started swearing in frustration. “Like, how quickly does the world owe him something that he knew about only 10 seconds ago?” he asked.

I was thinking about this because I’ve been frustrated with the Netflix app on my old Samsung Galaxy Tab 10.1 Android tablet. The app had been rock-solid for months, particularly after I learned to take the time to use the Back button to invoke a dialog box that completely shuts down the app. About a week ago the behavior changed, and the Back button now just ushers the app off to a suspended state sans dialog box. But launching Netflix from a suspended state causes the app to hang on my tablet. Every. Single. Time.

This makes me angry. And given Louis C.K.’s observations, perhaps unreasonably so. I mean, work an extra 20 seconds to kill the Netflix app in the background and then relaunch it, so I can get at the next episode of “Arrested Development”? Bah!

But this reflects a real challenge for modern application development. When code on the Web or in the cloud or in a Windows Store app changes, it often changes the UX—and in ways your users might not be expecting. It used to be that upgrading an application or OS was a big deal that implied the somber shuffling of floppy discs or CDs, or at least a lengthy file download. There was a ceremony to the process, and it helped ensure that end users were fully vested and informed.

Today, not so much. Windows Store app updates are a quick click away, and Web apps are prone to sudden change or even retirement (I’m looking at you, Google Reader). But when a putative upgrade removes a beloved feature or familiar control, or creates a break in functionality, suddenly you’ve got Louis C.K.’s irate consumer problem, in all its self-centered glory. So, how quickly do you owe your users something that they knew about only 10 seconds ago? It’s a worthwhile question.

Michael Desmond is the Editor-in-Chief of MSDN Magazine.