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The Nonsense Shield

The power of usability

by Max van der Werff

Photo by Elvis Bekmanis on Unsplash

When it comes to software, there is a strong focus on User Experience — and so there should be — how do the users feel when using this, what is their experience, how does the product impact them. Often the internal guts of the architecture — the engineer’s view — can be the opposite, plenty of pitfalls and boulder-filled hallways.

Lets take a look at an example from the shiny side, and what we can take from that, the power that it brings and why we should be a little kinder to ourselves as engineers.

The “Real World”

I consider the usability to be what makes services like Netflix and Uber to be so successful, they’re just so dang easy. Easy to use, easy to enjoy the blissful ignorance that comes along with it and easy to put your time towards the things that require more thought.

In my mind Netflix is successful by hiding the nonsense, they arrived on the scene during what I would consider the peak of internet piracy (I haven’t fact checked this so feel free to tell me just how wrong I am). The “free” world of pirates, of ignoring copyright and many, many virus checks. You could get your hands on just about anything, if you had the ability, know-how and determination to dig through the muck.

Netflix allowed for the ability to “get your hands on just about anything”, without the legal issues, virus checks and knowledge, for a small pull on your purse strings. It’s so smart, so powerful and so obvious looking back at it. It’s a similar process to getting that delicious takeaway you know absolutely deserve after a long week, you could make the walk to the shop or you could pay an extra £2 so you can sit in your pyjamas and watch another episode of Friends. It’s the ease of it, it’s knowing how much your time is worth.

Netflix are obviously massively successful, both from a user and a financial perspective — but what I’m interested in is the power behind it, if you can remove the nonsense, you can really begin to make a difference. This is the power of the nonsense shield.

The Nonsense Shield

The more time I spend around technology, users — wise or otherwise — the more worth I see in hiding the nonsense. I feel like accessibility is probably a better term for this but it covers so many other topics that it gets a little noisy to use that term — so we’ll stick with usability for now.

The Nonsense shield is what I consider to be — from an engineering perspective — the ability to wrap up that particularly interesting API into a lovely colourful command line interface or a tiny client.

Think of the number of times that little script, dinky command line hack or tool you threw together in no time at all has saved your bacon. I see these as the real ⭐️s of development, they handle a job and they do it well, on a time budget, they are often a minimum viable product and often stay that way.

Making that odd bit of architecture that people aren’t well versed in (and wouldn’t be Fast not Perfect to spend the time to get everyone up to speed) a little easier to use can go a long way.

Those little Gists, scripts rusting away in a wiki somewhere or — my personal favourite — at the bottom of that email chain you were forwarded, can have use but it can just be one little lick of paint to shield everyone from the nonsense.

To me, this is the exact same feel that Netflix exudes, the sheer power of usability. You have the ability to improve the way you and others work, when was the last time you gave back?

+1 Intellect to Group

I consider making these tools to be an extension of the open source way of working, giving back to the community, spreading that knowledge and by proxy, power.

In my short career in tech I have found these tools to be incredibly empowering; for myself to write them, to have others use mine and to use others’. They function as a tool for education, a vessel for documentation and a way to remove friction.

They can distil an engineer’s expertise and knowledge into an entity that can bring other’s ways of working closer to best practices faster than any training could. If you researched, wrote and implemented that new piece of the stack, why not put together the tool to interact with it — lower the barrier to entry for those who follow. No one wants to fix a foreign service at 4am without a helping hand.

Here at TravelNest, we have tools for migrating databases, setting up authorisation policies, spinning up testing environments or cracking out a new repo structure in seconds. Each one has saved me days worth of development time.

Maybe it’s time for you to open your toolbox to the team?

About the Author

Engineer @ TravelNest. Solver of problems 🔎, proud nerd 😎 , investigator of rabbit holes 🐇 and author of rambling lists ✏️.

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