January 2018

Volume 33 Number 1

[Don't Get Me Started]


By David Platt | January 2018

David PlattIn my November 2017 column about duct tape (msdn.com/magazine/mt845623), I promised you a follow-up piece on duct tape’s polar opposite. Herewith my ruminations on the all-purpose penetrating lubricant WD-40 (wd40.com), and its application to software.

As duct tape can stick almost anything together, WD-40 can get almost anything apart. You’ll find them nestled next to each other in almost every toolbox in the world. This confluence is celebrated in song, see bit.ly/2hW4IOy and bit.ly/2BjLvhz.

Our applications use duct tape internally, where the user can’t see it—lots and lots of duct tape. But the external functionality of our most successful software owes more to WD-40. Our apps rarely invent something completely new. What we usually do is reduce the friction of existing operations, as WD-40 reduces the friction of mechanical parts.

Consider Uber, the much-maligned but much-much-used ride hailing service. Uber isn’t doing anything conceptually new. New York City has had radio-dispatched car services for as long as it’s had radios and cars: call 777-7777 and you get Dial 7’s car service; call 666-6666 and you get Carmel’s. The same business structure applies: drivers own their cars and do the driving; the central service handles marketing, booking and payment. Similar operations exist in many other cities.

How has Uber reduced the friction of this process? With Uber, you summon a ride without talking to a live person. The younger generation especially prefers this, and it’s one less body Uber needs to hire; lowering costs permanently once you get the code written. The app remembers your most frequent destinations, offering them at a single tap. You don’t need to find a new car service in each city you visit, the same app works almost everywhere. You don’t have to describe or even know your location in a strange city, the app takes care of that. You don’t have to visit an ATM for cash, or even take out your credit card; the service handles all of that. The driver doesn’t need an expensive radio console to participate, just the smartphone she probably already carries. A good squirt of WD-40 on all the joints limbers up a service that is pulverizing the competition.

Now consider Amazon. It’s not doing anything conceptually that Sears didn’t do with their mail-order operation a hundred years ago, but Amazon is drastically lowering friction and hammering Sears. Amazon’s Web site is easier to distribute and update than the Sears paper catalog. Items are easier to find with a search box than a paper index. Amazon’s 1-Click Order button is much easier than filling out and snailing a paper order form with a paper check. And customers no longer have to wait a week or longer for the Wells Fargo Wagon to deliver their orders, holding a town parade when it arrives, as they did in “The Music Man” (straight version at bit.ly/2AaVng8, spoof at bit.ly/2ACLSYa). 

Amazon has dumped a barrel of WD-40 into all aspects of the retail process, lowering the friction nearly to zero. I had to turn 1-Click off because I was buying too much stuff. Amazon founder Jeff Bezos became the world’s richest man in late October. “The Music Man” song will soon need rewriting: “Oh, the Amazon drone is a-flying down the street …”

We should use more WD-40 in designing software. Maybe, in addition to posters displaying our target user personas, we should display big spray cans of WD-40 around the lab as an inspiration to ask ourselves, “How can we lower friction even more?” For example, the auto-save in One Note has lower friction than manual saving in Word. The automatic disk backup of Carbonite has much lower friction than backing up data yourself. Amazon’s patent on 1-Click ordering expired last fall (see bit.ly/2jq9YdC), so I expect to see many companies start using it. Sears, on the other hand, brought back their paper catalog this Christmas (cnnmon.ie/2zCHS62), betting that nostalgia could bring back buyers. I’m betting it was the last Christmas for Sears as a going concern.

The night before code freeze, we shouldn’t be trying to cram in one more feature for our few power users. We should be trying to lower the friction for everyone. We should be asking ourselves, “Where else in this process can we spray WD-40?”

David S. Plattteaches programming .NET at Harvard University Extension School and at companies all over the world. He’s the author of 11 programming books, including “Why Software Sucks” (Addison-Wesley Professional, 2006) and “Introducing Microsoft .NET” (Microsoft Press, 2002). Microsoft named him a Software Legend in 2002. He wonders whether he should tape down two of his daughter’s fingers so she learns how to count in octal. You can contact him at rollthunder.com.

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