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Byron's laws of software

I’ve got only two laws of software. The first is that any mildly successful software program will begin to operate under the delusion it is an operating system. That’s a topic for another column. The second is that users will invent uses for a given piece of software that its designers never imagined.

EBay’s recent experience with Half.com is a twist on that rule. eBay bought Half.com intending to shut it down and move its users into the eBay on-line auction model. A funny thing happened on the way to the transition. Not only did existing clients of Half.com put up a fuss, but even after eBay announced the shutdown, new clients kept signing up on Half.com’s fixed listing price service. Late this week eBay relented and announced that Half.com would continue to operate as is for the foreseeable future.

EBay ran into the second law of software. They thought of individuals selling stuff on the internet in one way. Then they expanded their user base and learned a lesson about user creativity and diversity.

I usually see two types of reactions to this phenomenon. There are the folks who have the “Way cool” response, and there are the folks who have the “You shouldn’t do that” response. Organizations act like people in more than just the legal sense of the word, and most organizations will also fall into one camp or the other. Things get very interesting when a few individuals are saying “way cool!” and their organization is saying “That not how you do it” or vice versa.

This little dilemma arises because there isn’t a correct response. If the creative use solves a real business problem in a cost effective way — Way Cool! If the creative use merely entertains the user and increases help desk and training costs three fold, well, you shouldn’t do that.
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Organizations that are more focused on delivering predictable software related to established business processes will usually lean to the “shouldn’t do that” view of world. If you’re working in this kind of an organization and are having the “way cool” kind of response, take a deep breath. Remember that in this kind of situation, the developers most likely don’t own the business processes in question. The owners, like owners everywhere, don’t take kindly to someone else coming in and rearranging their furniture so to speak.

That said, you can look for ways to use your “way cool” powers for good instead of perceived evil. While channeling the creative user back into the established procedures for the given task, engage them in a dialog. Find out why they thought the software should work the way they wanted it to. Be ready to quit talking technology and begin talking about the tasks they do every day.

If you have requirements, use cases or a business case, figure out if this user developed “feature” was thought of and rejected or just missed. Begin thinking about version two or even about a whole new project, along with all the consensus-building and vision and business justifications that implies. It may not be quite as way cool in that perspective, but it’s more likely to have some long-term impact.

Organizations that are breaking new ground with their software are more likely to have the “way cool” view of user creativity. However, the survivors among these organizations also need some of the “shouldn’t do that” types on-board, or at least some “shouldn’t do that YET” types.

One of my most memorable help desk experiences came when rolling out a new piece of software with some embedded licensed features to 30,000 users. A user wanted a feature we hadn’t licensed and one of our third-shift help-desk staff responded by unlocking that feature… for that user and all 29,999 others as well. No testing. No documentation. No training. And, oh, by the way, no payments either. I don’t remember exactly how much additional support cost we incurred catching up with that bit of organizational creativity, but I do remember we spent more dollars and time on that then on the rest of the product combined.

Users will come up with creative and unexpected ways to use the software we develop. Nothing will stop that, and we should be grateful the users are so engaged. I’ve always said I liked working on help desks because you have the entire user population out there capable of making mistakes and learning new things for you. Given the second law of software we also have the entire user population creating new features as well.

Who knew we had such a big, creative development team?

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Byron Glick is a principal at Prairie Star Consulting, LLC, a planning and program-development consulting firm in Madison, Wis. He can be contacted via e-mail at byron.glick@prairiestarconsulting.com or via telephone at 608/345-3958.

The opinions expressed herein or statements made in the above column are solely those of the author, & do not necessarily reflect the views of Wisconsin Technology Network, LLC. (WTN). WTN, LLC accepts no legal liability or responsibility for any claims made or opinions expressed herein.

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