Irreverence Versus Arrogance

Everything sacred is a tie, a fetter.
— Max Stirner

I am an irreverent guy. I’m a fan of South Park and QA Hates You, for example. Furthermore, I think it’s important–nay, essential–for software testers to cultivate a healthy irreverence. Nothing should be beyond question or scrutiny. “Respecting” something as “off limits” (also known as dogmatism) is bound to lead to unexamined assumptions, which in turn can lead to missed bugs and lower quality software. If anything, I think testers should consider themselves akin to the licensed fools of the royal court: Able–and encouraged–to call things as they see them and, especially, to question authority.

Contrast that with arrogance–an attitude often confused with irreverence. The distinction between them may be subtle, but it is key. Irreverence and humility are not mutually exclusive, whereas arrogance involves a feeling of smug superiority; a sense that one is “right.” Arrogance thus contains a healthy dose of dogmatism. The irreverent, on the other hand, are comfortable with the possibility that they’re wrong. They question all beliefs, including their own. The arrogant only question the beliefs of others.

I pride myself (yes, I am being intentionally ironic, here) on knowing this difference. So, it pains me to share the following email with you. It’s an embarrassing example of a moment when I completely failed to keep the distinction in mind. Worse, I had to re-read it several times before I could finally see that my tone was indeed arrogant, not irreverent, as I intended it. I’ll spare you my explanations and rationalizations about how and why this happened (though I have a bunch, believe me!).

The email–reproduced here unmodified except for some re-arranging, to improve clarity–was meant only for the QA team, not the 3rd-party developer of the system. In a comedy of errors and laziness it ended up being sent to them anyway. Sadly, I think its tone ensured that none of the ideas for improvements were implemented.

After you’ve read the email, I invite you to share any thoughts you have about why it crosses the line from irreverence into arrogance. Naked taunts are probably appropriate, too. On the other hand, maybe you’ll want to tell me I’m wrong. It really isn’t arrogant! I won’t hold my breath.

Do you have any stories of your own where you crossed the line and regretted it later?

The user interface for OEP has lots of room for improvement (I’m trying to be kind).

Below are some of my immediate thoughts while looking at the OEP UI for the front page. (I’ll save thoughts on the other pages for later)

1. Why does the Order Reference Number field not allow wildcards? I think it should, especially since ORNs are such long numbers.

2. Why can you not simply click a date and see the orders created on that date? The search requires additional parameters. Why? (Especially if the ORN field doesn’t allow wildcards!)

3. Why, when I click a date in the calendar, does the entire screen refresh, but a search doesn’t actually happen? I have to click the Search button. This is inconsistent with the way the Process Queue drop down works. There, when I select a new queue, it shows me that instantly. I don’t have to click the “Get Orders” button.

5. What does “Contact Name” refer to? When is anyone going to search by “Contact Name”? I don’t even know what a Contact Name is! Is it the patient? Is it the OEP user???

Click for full size

Click for full size

4. In fact, I *never* have to click the Get Orders button. Why is it even there on the screen?

6. Why waste screen space with a “Select” column (with the word “Select” repeated over and over again–this is UGLY) when you could eliminate that column and make the Order Reference number clickable? That would conserve screen space.

7. Why does OEP restrict the display list to only 10 items? It would be better if it allowed longer lists, so that there wouldn’t need to be so much searching around.

8. Why are there “View Notes” links for every item, when most items don’t have any notes associated with them? It seems like the View Notes link should only appear for those records that actually have notes.

9. Same question as above, for “Show History Records”.

10. Also, why is it “Show History Records” instead of just “History”, which would be more elegant, given the width of the column?

11. Speaking of that, why not just have “History” and “Notes” as the column headers, and pleasant icons in those rows where History or Notes exist? That would be much more pleasing to the eye.

Click for full size

Click for full size

12. In the History section, you have a “Record Comment” column and an “Action Performed” column. You’ll notice that there is NEVER a situation where the “Action Performed” column shows any useful information beyond what you can read in the “Record Comment” field. Why include something on the screen if it’s not going to provide useful information to the user?

For example:

Record Comment: Order checked out by user -TSIAdmin-
Action Performed: CheckOut

That is redundant information.

In addition to that, in this example the Record Create User ID field says “TSIAdmin”. That’s more redundant information.

There must be some other useful information that can be put on this screen.

13. Why does the History list restrict the display to only 5 items? Why not 20 items? Why not give the user the option to “display all on one page”?

Click for full size

Click for full size

14. In Notes section of the screen, the column widths seem wrong. The Date and User ID columns are very wide, leaving lots of white space on the screen.

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  1. “Why does the Order Reference Number field not allow wildcards? I think it should, especially since ORNs are such long numbers.”

    Were there any requirements here? Are you challenging the requirements, design, or the implementation? Perhaps the answer to “why” was “because we weren’t told or paid to”?

    Overall, I can’t tell what your email is supposed to be. Suggestions for potential bug reports, observations by an interested party, a criticism of the requirements, design or 3rd party developers? It’s hard to know.

    You clearly weren’t trying to be kind. Or, if you were, you failed. So why the snide first sentence?

    As to Irreverence Versus Arrogance in this email, again it’s hard to say. While somewhat snarky, if you were charged with giving an honest internal assessment it may not be arrogance. If instead, you just took it upon yourself to slam the 3rd party developer, it’s probably more arrogant.

    That said, don’t worry about it. We all go overboard in a communication or two. if it’s important, you can repair the relationship. If not, then accept that your reputation may have take a minor hit and you can move on.

  2. Thanks for the comment, Joe!

    As for back story, I’ll keep it fairly vague, but the email was essentially born of my own frustration. We were charged with user acceptance testing and I, playing the role of the user, wasn’t particularly happy.

  3. Hi Abe,
    Thanks for sharing this with us.
    I kind of feel, that some of the questions are more like statements and feel a bit closed to me.I feel that the recipient(s) may not feel as involved in the conversation..

    I also get the feeling that you think you’re right.

    However as Joe has mentioned this may depend on the context.

    It is difficult when you’re so frustrated, but what I try and do is think of the best way to get things fixed, I think I kind of take apologetic view when reporting stuff, I know it doesn’t always work but I want the other person/people to feel like they’ve discovered and then ‘more likely?’ to solve the problem. (Probably way weird but hey) I try and do this by using stuff like ‘I noticed that’, ‘Is it possible to’, ‘I’m just wondering whether we could’. ‘Do you think we’

    I think there may also be an assumption that the recipient knows how you’re feeling, unhappy? or angry? or both? or something else?

    I think we have all been in this situation, but what I also try and do if possible is to give one of the recipients a call, even if you have drafted an email and not sent it..just by discussing stuff I might find that I’m not as ‘right’ as I may have thought, there may be some reasoning behind some issue found or like ‘oh you’ve got the default config, we just need to switch x and the options change.’ I have also been in situations where the programmers have been under extreme pressure and stress, it can be hard not adding too much to that as they’re trying to do their best.

    Thankyou for reminding me it’s not all about why? why? why? Although that’s maybe what we’re thinking the way that thinking is presented can be all important.

    Peter

  4. To me, this is somewhat like the difference between being a reporter and being a columnist.

    If you were supposed to be a reporter, I think you failed. Too many opinions. Most of those opinions should have come in the Requirements/Design stages, rather than later in the process.

    If you were supposed to be a columnist, perhaps you succeeded. It’s less clear in that case.

    You say you “played the role of the user”. But what about the actual users? How did they feel?

  5. Peter,

    …I think I kind of take apologetic view when reporting stuff…

    That’s generally my approach as well. In this situation my intended audience was an internal project manager or designer. Unfortunately it turned out that there was no such person (why that was the case is beyond me!). So, the email got forwarded to the development company (who I knew would have no interest in changing the UI, since it would have no return for them–and they were already extremely late with delivering a product that worked according to the specs. Usability is generally the first thing that gets dropped in such projects).

    Joe,

    You say you “played the role of the user”. But what about the actual users? How did they feel?

    Every person I spoke with was as frustrated with the system as I was, but none felt empowered to speak up.

    I’ll see if I can get some actual users to post their thoughts here.

  6. I think I understand the situation a bit more now.

    I might get this all wrong..

    and you probably explored these avenues but…
    How important do you and the users think the issues are/usability is?

    Also is there a any priority over the issues you’ve found?

    How did you know the development company had no intention of changing the UI? Had you spoken with them? If you think you crossed the line could you talk to the development company apologize and explain the reasons for your frustrations?

    Who makes the business decisions for the project?, and have you provided them with the information?

    I’m thinking about whether there may be a ‘trade off’ these/or some of these issues with the development of something else/and or delivery? but this is probably a stakeholder decision right? I’m thinking about someone making a business decision based on the information you’ve provided? Is there another way you can present the information to show it’s business importance?

    ‘Usability is generally the first thing that gets dropped from projects’ – Is there some history there?

    Peter

  7. How important do you and the users think the issues are/usability is?

    Difficult question to answer, but the baseline being used for comparison was the existing system, being replaced. It was a nightmare of unusability. Not hard to improve upon.

    There’s also the question of the relative importance of usability versus core functionality. Several weeks after I sent the email the developers still had not delivered core features. Plus, the features that were testable had unacceptable defects. As the deadline loomed larger and larger, user friendliness was seen more and more like a luxury–“We just want something that works!”

    How did you know the development company had no intention of changing the UI? Had you spoken with them? If you think you crossed the line could you talk to the development company apologize and explain the reasons for your frustrations?

    I think you can surmise the answer to these questions from what I wrote above. As to speaking with them directly, myself… I’m not sure how to answer that without a lot of writing. It was a complicated and political mess.

    Who makes the business decisions for the project?, and have you provided them with the information?

    When I sent the email originally I thought that’s what I was doing!

    It was a complete surprise to me when I found out it had been forwarded to the development company. I remember thinking then that an apt metaphor for the project was a chicken with its head cut off.

    So, Peter, you’ve made me realize that the reasons for ignoring my suggestions were clearly unrelated to the tone of the email (for the most part, anyway)! While that doesn’t excuse it, it does change my perspective a bit.

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