Monday, 7 August 2017

On the Need to Test for Beauty and Elegance

I have spent the last month off work, visiting parts of the UK, Paris and Seoul with my wife. During this time I have spent much time engaged in visiting museums and historic sights and strangely enough pondering over my half-formed and admittedly likely flawed ideas regarding what beauty and elegance is.

What IT products would end up in a museum or art gallery in 100 years time? Computers that didn'ty look great but represented an impressive landmark in CS such as Tom Kilburn's Baby? Beautiful and stylish Apple iMacs and iPads? More "functional" but equally noteworthy VIC 20s and Atari STs? What about software? Computer games such as the Tomb Raider and Destiny series are beautiful to look at and very fun to play but the much more mundane Microsoft Office has been more important to people in a wide range of areas. Can one genre be seen as "art" and elevated to the Louvre one day, sharing a wing with the Botticellis and the Venus de Milo, and the other deemed more fitting for industrial museums such as the venerable Museum of Science and Industry in Manchester - sharing a wing with the steam engines and 19th Century cotton weavers? Is this a poor distinction to make and should all software be treated equally?

Sandro Botticelli: Madonna and Child with St. John the Baptist, c. 1470–1475, Louvre (CC: Wikipedia)
Replica of Tom Kilburn's Manchester Small Scale Experimental Machine, nicknamed "Baby". The world's first stored program computer. (CC: Wikipedia)

How many development teams see their end product as aesthetically pleasing and write this into their requirements? Who is the best judge of something so abstract and intangible - a UI expert, key users, the testers or the manager? In the middle and latter stages of a project, when the deadline is upon us and the resource restraints come thick and fast, how much of aesthetic quality sacrificed to reach the goal? How often do testers actually raise an issue that a design or its implementation is ugly or inelegant?

I have worked with some (what I regarded as) damn ugly and inelegant software in some past projects, yet I admit that rarely have I put up my hand and stated that some feature was just not stylish or pretty enough. I have improved on this recently. In my experience the all too common wisdom in teams has been that it was "what was agreed in the spec" or "what the client wants" or "what the designers/devs came up with and it is too late to change it". In terms of aesthetics, I have simply tended to focus on useability and how closely the user interface matches the design. In this respect I should have done better and fought against the perceived wisdom - in some cases nothing more than excuses for inaction.

However useability is not the same as elegance and "matching the design" is not the same as beauty. All software aimed to be used by people will be judged by its aesthetic qualities and elegance. We want software that elates the heart as well as satisfies the need. Testers have a critical role to play in achieving this.

The focus (especially in agile development) on inclusion of features above all else - done in a rushed fashion without care for aesthetics - detracts from the elegance (where simplicity is a large part) and beauty of the eventual product. Even after production deployment, we create environments where the final has new challenges to cope with - be they oversized and dynamic ad content that change the layout of web pages or overly complicated and badly designed later-introduced game levels and characters - that give a poor impression to our users.

This can also be caused by testers being brought in at the development (and later) stages of the project - after requirements and design are "locked down". The current trend towards "shift-left" may resolve this. Another cause for certain projects heavy focus on meeting the letter of requirements over thinking about what is best for the users - which takes leadership from the stakeholders and project management down to  resolve but for which testers must be willing to ask the difficult questions to achieve.

Regarding who is best to judge what is beautiful or elegant or what even these terms mean in IT, I have no definitive answer and put the question out to the community. There are web and UI design standards which can help but they do not solve the problem. At one level, product walkthroughs and the inclusion of management and user views at every iteration can at least provide opinion and consensus (where all are allowed to speak with equal merit), however even in these cases the focus can tend towards what is functionally sufficient and not the aesthetics.

I implore all of us working in development teams to challenge views about design and look and feel as early as possible in the lifecycle. Testers should ask hard questions about the aesthetic qualities of the product, however without acceptance from stakeholders, management, business analysts, designers and developers nothing will change. Clearly there are many examples of stunning and elegant products created that people like as well as use (Apple is a case in point), so good practice does exist. We all need to find and follow it.

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