Joel On Software quote

Christopher Hicks chicks at
Thu Sep 9 15:17:06 UTC 2004

On Thu, 9 Sep 2004, Gervase Markham wrote:
> "Since then, I've become even more devoted to the idea of the value of good 
> social interface design: we bring in experts like Clay Shirky (a pioneer in 
> the field), we do bold experiments on the poor citizens of the Joel on 
> Software discussion group (many of which are so subtle as to be virtually 
> unnoticeable, for example, the fact that we don't show you the post you're 
> replying to while you type your reply in hopes of cutting down quoting, which 
> makes it easier to read a thread), and we're investing heavily in advanced 
> algorithms to reduce discussion group spam."
> Joel believes that cutting down quoting, rather than encouraging it, is good 
> social interface design :-)

Joel is always right for Joel's Universe and Joel is certainly good food 
for thought in other universes, but in this case the food leaves me 
feeling a bit ill.  In the Chicks Universe where I live having people 
clued enough to quote makes problems like chat spam nearly nonexistant and 
certainly not enough of an issue that anyone has complained in ages. 
Conversations (particularly in terms of bugs) tend to drag in additional 
participatings through time and can be somewhat complex.  Expecting new 
participants to read the whole bug to get up to speed on the issues works 
for some folks some of the time, but quoting provides the opportunity to 
contextify subsequent comments enough that diving all the way in isn't 
absolutely necessary.  For instance, there's no reason for the LDAP admin 
to need to know or wade through all of the screen layout niggling that's 
gone on to answer which LDAP schema we need to work from.  The new 
bugzilla Reply feature has been very popular and appreciated in our 
bugzilla for providing just enough context for somebody that's newly cc'd 
into the bug.  The concept of forcing people to wade through and establish 
their own context instead seems unnecessarily cruel.

I think Joel's idea of social interface design is fundamentally flawed 
because it seems to be trying to solve cultural problems in software. 
The resulting software then fails to work worth a darn for people that 
don't share those cultural problems.  In this case Joel's pet culture 
can't persuade people to quote just enough to provide context for their 
new comments.  I've certainly been frustrated by similar things on mailing 
lists.  Why do people quote entire digests to say "me too"?  I suspect 
many of us have witnessed people militantly asking folks not to reply to 
things to start a new thread.  So the sorts of things that frustrate Joel 
are by no means unique to his culture.  But there are other cultures that 
don't share those behavior issues.  Designing software so that it makes it 
harder for people to quote would just irritate the user in these other 
cultures.  I deal with academics and scientists using my software and 
providing feedback.  These people have no difficulty quoting ten or 12 
different previous items and the result makes sense and actually moves the 
discussion along toward getting the software done.  Shackling these folks 
who can adeptly deal with synthesizing on that level with the a system 
that discouraged providing context would seem tragic to me.

Please don't take any of this to say that I'm totally opposed to 
influencing user behavior by software design.  But doing so is something 
that is likely as in this case to lead to niche software that doesn't 
"scale" to other cultures.  When your effort to influence shackles some 
you've gone beyond influencing.


There are two ways of constructing a software design. One way is to make 
it so simple that there are obviously no deficiencies. And the other way 
is to make it so complicated that there are no obvious deficiencies.
  -- C.A.R. Hoare

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