Friday, October 23, 2009

StackOverflow DevDays - Opening Keynote with Joel Spolsky

DevDays is officially launched!

I expected a usual "Welcome speech" in the first appearence. Instead we had a funny video with Joel Spolsky expressing all the absurdity a programmer can encounter in a typical day at the office. I loved it.. big big fan of sarcasm :)

What Happenned

Joel Spolsky came in person right after to share with us his point of view on websites, softwares and devices of today. The accent was made on simplicity... making things simple for users. To quote him: "Do one thing, and do it right"... Wait a minute, hey Joel, stop quoting me!

To demonstrate that more is less.. and less is more, he began by showing us examples of programs and operating systems filled with frustrating questions. Like the ones we can see on Vista when we try to alter its configurations. Another example was a music website with a search engine with too much search filters: by genre, year, artist, song, etc...

According to him, having more features, means having more questions for the users. That leads to decision paralysis. People don't want to be involved too much in decision making, so giving them more and more features means more decisions to make, and more decisions to make just give them a false impression of having choices. Too much choices is in fact, demotivating.

To back his claims, he came up with a study conducted on two jam stands aside from each other. One with six different flavors, the other with twenty-four different flavors. I don't remember numbers correctly but more people stopped at the stand having more choices. But at the end of the day, the stand having six different flavors sold ten times more jam pots than the other stand (three % of visitors, versus thirty % of visitors purchased a pot of jam)! The twenty-four flavors stand was too involving. Yes people were more interrested by having a lot of choices, but at the end they just did not want to commit on a particular one.

So less makes life simpler and give users a sense of self... he said.

Personally, I see plenty of "simple" these days (37signals, Twitter, StackOverflow, etc.). But why is "simple" so popular? According to him, startups usually (read: always) have no time nor plenty of resources to do an application packed with features. So they try to do well simple appealing things. It's also popular because as we saw with our jam stands, features aren't proportional to sales. Finally, the things they do, are really what people care about.

He later discussed in details how to build a model of what people care about, when choosing features for a project. I won't go in details into this part, there was a lot of interactive graphics and charts and I'm not comfortable enough to talk about it without notes.

All in all, what came out of Joel's speech is

  • Good features helps accomplish users goals
  • Bad features are interrupting users
  • Do elegent features: have the modesty to not draw the attention away from the feature according to the difficulty to implement that feature
  • 80/20 rule: 80% work, 20% result

So that's about it, it really was a good start! I honestly recommend you to see Joel in action. He's funny, brilliant and really a people person. It must be great working with him. By the way if you want to know more about the paradox of choices, he pointed us to a book explaining the concept: Paradox of Choice - Why More is Less.

I got to go, moving on to the next presentation! If you have any question or comments, feel free to leave them below.

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