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Kevin Cheng  

WHIPPING the Llama

October 16th, 2003 by Kevin Cheng :: see related comic

A lot of comments that I want to address. I hope the commenters won’t mind me quoting them in the post so we we can further the discussions.

First, thanks to Joel for the link. We hope we’ve entertained the newcomers and you’ve taken down our RSS feed. We’ll have a mailing list up soon as well which will remind you when a new strip is out if you don’t use RSS.

I originally thought Winamp’s slogan was “It Really Kicks the Llama’s Ass”. As one reader mentioned, it’s “Whips” not “Kicks”. So I really intended the title of the comc to be “Whipping the Llama”. That said, I don’t hate Winamp. I use it over Media Player in fact, if for no other reason than that it minimizes to my system tray instead of task bar. I’m not saying I like it either. Let’s just leave it at that for now. The title just seemed appropriate. If anything was going to whip the llama, it would be the horrid interface up there.Site comments: A lot of really good feedback. I’m not going to add comments and trackback to the comic itself because I think of the first post (which is always entitled the same as the strip) as a part of the comic. I understand this makes linking the comic difficult but I also want to encourage people to see it as a package. The font size and accessibility criticism is definitely warranted. I should have been smarter with that and even the font choice is starting to bother me for long articles like what we have here so we’ll look into that and making it darker.

Now the good stuff:

Those that can’t stand what they see as stupidity. If you were to face the facts, some HCI people are, let’s say, less than perfect. Also they tend to be very political creatures — if someone in upper management likes a particular feature even if no customer is going to need it and it is going to be staring all customers in the face 24x7 and it takes up valuable screen real estate — the HCI guy is going to put his full weight behind it anyway. Of course the HCI guy is going to see the programmers who oppose his politically expedient issues as “problem” probrammers!

I want to start with the first sentence: “those that can’t stand what they see as stupidity”. If you view something as stupid, obviously you can’t stand it. Developer or not, nobody likes things they feel are stupid. Again, this boils down to communication. HCI thinks something is stupid. Devs think something is stupid. Talk over it, build a dialogue, try to learn more about each other’s field, and maybe you’ll realize somethings that seemed stupid aren’t that stupid afterall. The programmers who carry egos so large that they assume their all views are correct are the ones that cause problems. Yes, before you say it, some HCI people have egos that get in their way, too. We are generalizing and we will continue to do so every week. Sometimes, we may directly criticise someone but believe me, this isn’t one of those times and if it were, readers would know.

As for political creatures, one could easily argue those developers that place their own “cool factor” over actual prioritized functionality. Or the need to rebuild something because the “code is messy”. The point is: we’re all generalizing and generalizations don’t encompass all. I’m sure there ARE HCI people who succumb to political pressure easily. I’m also sure there are developers that fit in the four classes above.

I’d like to take issue with the tone of this article, represented nicely by this quote:

“Programmers are inherently logic oriented. In particular, digital logic is the domain they work and think in. There are 1ís and there are 0ís and rarely anything in between.”

I think that’s a pretty narrow minded and dehumanizing generalization.

Many people react to disagreements by dismissing the concerns of others as mental defects of their “kind”. This problem is particularly endemic to the software world, where people identify so closely with their cliques.

I think that it’s really unfortunate when people think about and communicate with their coworkers in this way.

I think it’s unfortunate, too. As Tom mentioned in the comments reply, the reverse case where developers dismiss HCI happens much more frequently. As for my tone and that particular quote, I am not implying that developers think in black and white. The domain they work in, however, is very much a black and white world. I have a computer engineering background (most of which I have managed to forget). Analog circuits, for example, were NOT binary in nature and quite erratic and tempermental to work with. I preferred digital design or programming because the results were predictable, the rules always held true. When I program, I go into a certain way of thinking and problem solving. For more involved problems, I often find it difficult to get out of this state. In fact, I never get too involved in development when I’m also doing the HCI for a project because I find it hard for me to separate the two sides, so radically different are they. I’m simply saying that developers (and by the way, in this article, I specifically refer to problematic programmers and in that paragraph, the Nielsen class of programmers) think in a logical way. It’s what makes them great at what they do. That logic cannot necessarily be applied to usability guidelines blindly. It seems obvious when one states it in an article like this but again, I’m pointing out a group of developers who have done exactly this in the past. Are my experiences unique? Possibly but doubtful. Do they apply to all programmers? Of course not. But what’s the point in writing about all the great programmers I’ve worked with? That’s preaching to the choir.

If nothing else, the one point in my article that really was what I hoped programmers would focus on was: Communication can solve these problems.

4 Responses to “WHIPPING the Llama”
Chris Law wrote:

Really it seems like this isn’t a fight that HCI should be having with developers though. I mean, structurally the product mgr or someone higher up has to say Usability is a priority and I’m putting time on the schedule to make it happen.

Seems like this is a prioritization fight that is happening at the wrong level.

coiltesla wrote:

I know this is an ancient post and lord knows if you’ll see this comment, but you should know the full origin of the phrase “It really whips the llamas ass”. You may have heard it before. I’m sure there’s additional programmer refrences contained in it, but it comes from the lyrics of Wesley Willis, an outsider artist who used to live in Chicago. He was a gigantic schizophrenic man who wrote poetry and made enough connections in the local arts scene to learn how to set them to music. He performed with a heavy metal backup band for a while, but then he hooked up with Rick Rubin and did solo work, mostly him chanting his lyrics over simple casio keyboard tunes. One of his favorite phrases was “It really whips a [insert animal here]’s ass.” Quite often the animal was a camel, though I’m sure he said llama once or twice.

Sunnan wrote:

Arbitrarily minimizing to the system tray is horrible!

If you like it, it’s because you don’t like using the regular taskbar for everything.

If people don’t like the regular taskbar, that’s fine, but choosing which apps go there and which don’t shouldn’t be arbitrary.

Maybe it’s time for another way of organizing windows. I use Tuomo Valkonen’s Ion, which has its own set of problems. I haven’t found anything better yet, but I’m not proclaiming Ion to be the end-all, be-all in this area.

acb wrote:

The Ion window manager, mentioned in the last response, is amazing, and sometimes truly enlightening for a certain type of user. It has spread like a virus where I work, with expert users who spend all their time working/coding in X on Linux (also X on OSX). Returning to ion after other window managers for X or other environments is like coming home, albeit a very sparsely furnished one.


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OK/Cancel is a comic strip collaboration co-written and co-illustrated by Kevin Cheng and Tom Chi. Our subject matter focuses on interfaces, good and bad and the people behind the industry of building interfaces - usability specialists, interaction designers, human-computer interaction (HCI) experts, industrial designers, etc. (Who Links Here) ?



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