Horror Stories: The Importance of Defining the “Not-So-Happy” Path

Considering the messy extremes is critical to good user experience design. Whether it is planning for a million records instead of the five that fit neatly onto your screen, use of a 20 item navigation menu on a mobile phone, or how a dark backdrop with white text performs with glare during outside use, good design accounts for non-ideal situations, ensuring that the solution is scalable, extensible, and accessible under a variety of conditions.

Following is an excerpt from my upcoming book “The Storyteller: A Zombie Software Story”. Here, we see our team grappling with understanding how to think about designing for when things go wrong, starting with understanding the potential problems.

Max cleared his throat, trying to put his misgivings into words. “It’s a lot of moving parts with very little information.” He said finally. “I can see how we’ve got an ideal case, but there’s so much we don’t know…”

“Exactly!” Justin nearly shouted his interruption. “This is a total shot in the dark! How can you just make up a story like that and expect us to believe it will work? I mean, where’s the research? We should be planning this for months before we try to make a move! We don’t know if it will work at all.”

Manisha waited for Justin to wind down before she said “That’s an interesting perspective. Tell me, what information do you feel like is missing?”

Justin spluttered, gesticulating wildly in the air as he jerked back. “Market analysis! Problem verification! System compatibility!” he jumped up from his seat and started to pace. “I mean, sure, it’s an RFP so the market is pretty locked down, I guess. But problem verification is huge – you said yourself we need to keep it open-ended to make sure we’re solving the real problem, not what they imagine the problem is. And that takes time we just don’t have. I don’t see how we can get that to a high degree of confidence before we have to start coding the proof of concept. And then the system compatibility issues! What if we can’t make our software talk to each other? What if we can’t make it talk to the firmware the weapon has installed? What if…” he trailed off as he looked over at Angie. Max turned to see a slightly guilty smile on her face.

Justin stared “Angie….?”

She shrugged from where she sat, perched on the table “Hey, you guys didn’t think I made this decision in a vacuum did you? We did our due diligence prior to the acquisition. Have some faith in Owen and Ward – they’re smart guys. The firmware interface is another matter, but we’re doing investigations on that as we speak.” She turned to face them both. “Guys, this is an opportunity. A HUGE opportunity. And we are in a position to move quickly and take advantage of it. I know it seems fast, but we’ve all done things like this before. I’ll admit – there’s a risk. But it’s a calculated risk, not a foolhardy one. I need you both to get your running shoes on and stop belly aching about the fact that I moved your cheese.” She hopped down and started walking towards the door. “You know your stuff – you got this.” And then she was gone.

Max stared open mouthed at the empty doorway before shaking himself and turning back to Justin and Manisha.

“Well, that’s that, I guess.” He said with a shake of his head. “She’s right, of course. I’m more caught off guard than anything. “

Manisha smiled and nodded her understanding. “I’ve been involved since the beginning, so it’s a lot less of a surprise to me. I definitely understand how disconcerting all this can be.”

Justin crossed his arms with a frown. “Yeah, well, ‘disconcerting’ is sugar-coating it. I’d say fu…”

“Justin!” Max interrupted, cutting his eyes at Manisha.

“What? I can’t even express an opinon any more? Screw that! I’m out of here!” Justin stomped out of the room, muttering under his breath.

Max sighed. “He’ll cool down in an hour or two. This product is his baby and he just needs some time to get used to the idea.” He paused. “But he’s right that we’ve just got the happy path. How do we account for the not-so-happy paths?”

Manisha nodded “Horror stories. Right. We should be able to knock out a few of them now. We’ll be able to get more once the research team gets back with the contextual work so we have a better understanding of the current challenges.” She reached for the white board marker and started a new list titled ‘Trouble.’

“First, let’s list out potential failure points we’ll need to consider. Off the top of my head there’s visbility – the risk that they cannot see the targeting screen due to lighting conditions. Equipment failure – how do we handle an error within the hardware or software.”

Max chimed in. “Multiple targets, multiple users…oh, wait that’s not so much a failure point as a use case.”

Manisha started a second list title ‘Use Cases’. “Exactly. And we need to capture those too. Keep ‘em coming.”

After about 15 minutes they had added environmental factors (rain, cold, heat, etc.) and interference (enemy control of weapon) to their failure points. The use cases were proving harder.

“I just don’t have a good feel for the workflow on this.” Max grumbled. “And how are we going to turn this into …what did you call it?…’horror stories’?”

Manisha laughed. “Again, it’s not as hard as it seems. Let’s take visibility for example. We need to make stories that cover using the system when it is very bright, very dark, or the person using it is otherwise unable to see the interface.” She paused for a moment. “Take our original story, the dead squad in the high rise. You’ll remember the power is out and it’s poorly lit. Now, let’s add a line to the story about the gunner for this weapon. He wears prescription glasses and in the initial rush into the building they are knocked off his head and break.”

Max sighed. “Sounds a bit hokey, but ok, I’m game. So he can’t see well both due to lighting and losing his glasses.”

Manisha nodded “Once we get everyone back together, we can test that scenario out and see if it holds. If it does, we write requirements for eyes-free operation.”

Max was unconvinced. “Look, I don’t want to be disrespectful, but it seems to me that this is a lot of extra window dressing without a good return. I mean, I like a good story as much as anyone! I’m just not getting it.”

Manisha again, just nodded. “I know, it’s hard to see the value at first. It seems silly and like extra work for no reason. The return comes when you get multiple people involved. That’s the point when you need stories the most. It keeps everyone on the same page and ensures you’re seeing things the same way – or at least know that you are not seeing things the same way.” She paused, thinking. “Have you ever designed something perfectly to Justin’s specifications but had him come back and tell you that wasn’t what he asked for?”

Max looked down, a bit uncomfortable. “Well, sure. All the designers I know have that problem. Product managers are just…well, they aren’t always that good at writing requirements, you know? Plus they’re always coming up with new stuff to push into it and…” he trailed off, starting to understand.

Manisha prompted “And it’s like they aren’t on the same page as you? Like they have a different idea in their head?”

Nodding slowly, Max conceded, “Just like that. I’m not totally convinced stories will help that, but I guess I’m willing to try.”

Look for monthly excerpts – the book is coming out in 2017!