by Sean Johnson
According to the world’s brain (by which I mean Wikipedia in this case, not Google), abstraction in the context of computer programming is “to reduce and factor out details so that one can focus on a few concepts at a time.” I’ll explain how abstraction is so useful in software development with an analogy. Products that are electrical almost always have a power switch. We have abstracted this concept so we know to look for a power button, slider, switch or toggle on these devices. We don’t have to rediscover the concept of on/off and how it is implemented for every electrical device we encounter. This is the same type of abstraction software developers like to harness. Good software developers treat the like aspects of similar things in the same way and avoid exposing details of one area of their software to all the other areas of their software. Abstractions shield us from details that are not important at the time. Abstractions are productivity enhancing tools and they free us to focus on more important issues at a higher level in the system.
Yet all is not perfectly rosy with using abstraction. One problem with abstractions and software development has been identified by Joel Spolsky and he calls it the Law of Leaky Abstractions. A second problem with abstractions is that they aren’t always useful for our product’s users. When an abstraction is used to develop software it can then seem natural to expose the abstraction to users of the product. This is often times a very bad idea. In an homage to Joel, I’ll christen this the Law of Overexposed Abstractions.

Law of Overexposed Abstractions – the users of your software don’t benefit from the same abstractions that benefited you in building the software

Excess abstraction is a leading cause of complexity in software products. The developers know that the product is built in such a way that certain details of the system have been abstracted, and that the system is thus very flexible. They get excited about this and are eager to expose this flexibility to users so that they can benefit from it too. This rarely works because of the Law of Overexposed Abstractions. In exposing your abstraction to your users, the flexibility you are trying to provide simply becomes added complexity, configuration work, and cognitive load. This stems from, among other things, the need to translate between the abstract terms and concepts of your software and the concrete terms and concepts of the user’s world.
Why is there such a temptation to overexpose abstractions? Because the abstraction becomes real in the developer’s mind when it becomes real in the software’s code. Developers start talking and thinking in terms of the abstractions they’ve created and can quickly lose sight of the fact that the abstraction is entirely their own creation and is not something that users are familiar with and understand.
Another temptation comes in the form of a question that inevitably arises, “why have this useful abstraction and not take advantage of it?” The counsel here is patience. Take advantage of the flexibility in your software by creating new products for new markets based on your existing code base and by evolving your software to meet the changing needs of the marketplace over time. Trying to capitalize on your software abstractions by exposing them directly to your users will only frustrate them.
Here are four signs that you may have let your abstractions get overexposed:

  1. Users must learn a new vocabulary of abstract terms and how they map on to their own language in order to use your product.
  2. Your product exposes any sort of type system for users and administrators to define the types of objects that exist in the system
  3. Your product exposes any sort of workflow system for users and administrators to define processes
  4. Your product requires significant up front configuration before it can be used rather than supporting moderate adjustments once real world use has shown the user that they need to make an adjustment

I’ll illustrate some of these warnings with a great product that may have lost its way due to the Law of Overexposed Abstraction. Mingle is a project management and team collaboration product for agile software development teams from ThoughtWorks. I’ve been using Mingle for a couple of releases now and I have talked to other developers that use or have used or evaluated Mingle. A consistent view is that Mingle does many things right (its flexible user interface is a big plus) but it exposes too much abstraction. I’ve struggled with the resulting complexity myself and I’ve witnessed other development teams struggle with it.

Every item in Mingle is a card with a user defined sub-type.

Every item in Mingle is a card with a user defined sub-type.

Once defined, card types are ordered into a user defined containment hierarchy.

Once defined, card types are ordered into a user defined containment hierarchy.

Here is an example of user defined transitions in Mingle which take the form of a state machine.

User defined transitions in Mingle take the form of a state machine.

Mingle is a very flexible and abstract system. Without an existing template of card types, card properties, card tree hierarchies and state transitions, getting it configured is a daunting task that can at times feel like programming. ThoughtWorks has done a good job of providing some ready made templates with Mingle that can remove some of this burden. However, even when using a template users must come to grips with the abstractions to make the small configuration changes that are needed. Mingle would benefit from a more opinionated view of how an agile product management tool should function. Then the flexibility that has been developed in the system could remain under the covers but be leveraged to create different versions of Mingle for different development methodologies, or could be released in a high end version of the product for the largest development teams that can justify the cost of learning and configuring a complex tool.
Remember, smart developers will use abstraction, and this is not itself a problem. Abstractions go wrong when a strong barrier is not erected between useful abstractions in the software and the real world problems of your customers. Your software must interact with its users in a concrete and opinionated way. Use the vocabulary of your users, not the vocabulary of your own abstract creations. Even though your software is flexible and is therefore capable of supporting many different opinions, you must pick the one way you think is best for your customers and then defend the hell out of it.
Keep the abstractions where they belong, under the covers. Benefit from your abstractions over time, both by responding to the changing market faster and by creating new products from your existing code. And with each product release, remember to keep it real.
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Sean Johnson is a voice in the field of product development, management and design. He works for IBM and has brought numerous products to market for startups, for IBM and for himself. His blog on product design is called Art of the Product.

7 Comments

  1. Yep. I’ve worked with developers who felt perfectly justified in building apps with poor usability and even nonsensical error message based on the level of flexibility and abstraction in the code.

  2. Hi Sean,
    You said, “Your software must interact with its users in a concrete and opinionated way.” We actually have a very strong opinion in Mingle — it’s that there is no one way to do Agile software development. So the concrete interaction mechanism we’re pushing is akin to a spreadsheet. I wrote a blog post about the problems with Agile project tools that aren’t really agile here before we launched the product. Building in one methodology is conceptually contradictory in terms of giving teams the tools to be “Agile” and adaptable. Over the last 8 years, we’ve run hundreds of Agile projects all over the world, and while there are some essential best practices, we’ve realized that flexibility in tool support is a huge win.. We recognize that flexibility and power bring some usability concerns with them, and we’re actively working to make Mingle even easier to use.

  3. Chad-
    I’m not entirely sure that having a strong opinion that it’s best not to have a strong opinion is really valid… maybe it is, I’ll have to think about that a bit more.
    I did not come to use Mingle as my example lightly. It was a tough decision because I think Mingle is a great tool and I do use it myself. It is because Mingle is so good that it pains me that it could be made much better. I actually stood outside your booth at RailsConf and talked to a stream of developers over a 15 minute period of time. To a person they related what a shame it is that such a great tool as Mingle is had to be just that one extra bit too abstract, complex and complicated. People love Mingle, but it does throw out a lot of abstraction and complexity. Hopefully that is something you are working to reverse as you say you are.
    I guess what bothers me the most is when you say you have the experience from hundreds of Agile projects over 8 years. That’s invaluable! I want to benefit from that! Yes, PLEASE! I just don’t feel that I’m getting the benefit of that learned opinion when I use Mingle. You can argue that flexibility is what your customers want but I’ve been on numerous teams that have decided to use Mingle and every one of them felt very unsure that they had configured the tool to an even adequate level to get the benefits that might be available. It’s a nagging doubt that’s never really gone away. I’d be working on that if I were at ThoughtWorks.
    Thanks,
    Sean

  4. Hey Sean,
    Thanks for the feedback. We’re really working diligently to make sure Mingle’s abstraction is more manageable, and hopefully we’ll address a lot of your concerns in the coming releases. In terms of wanting more from ThoughtWorks’ experience, we’ll work to put more of that into the product. That’s both an insightful and humbling request. We’re working on it, and hopefully, we can meet your expectations. Feel free to contact us with more of your thoughts, especially if they can improve your experience.
    Regards,
    Chad

  5. You’ve done a great job articulating something I’ve felt for a long time. To a degree, this represents the difference between software written “by programmers for programmers” and software written for “real people”. I think most open source software suffers from overexposed abstractions, for example. Programmers get a kick out of making software flexible and generalized, and leap to the conclusion that their users will get the same kick out of their software, not realizing that the users care more about getting specific things done and less about having the most flexible software possible.
    I think that this is also a result of developers having a tendency to push the hard decisions onto their users rather than committing to making those decisions themselves. You mentioned Joel Spolsky – I think he’s talked about this as well, that most “options dialog” checkboxes represent a failure of the designers to make a decision.
    I like the word “opinionated” here; that pretty much captures this idea of taking a design stance and committing to it.

  6. Pingback: Art of the Product » Blog Archive » Leave the Abstract to Art

  7. Jesse – that’s a great point about pushing excess abstraction and flexibility often being a result of pushing off hard decisions. I didn’t posit that as one of the reasons but I think that’s exactly right in many cases.
    This is often the result of a lack of domain expertise or “domain confidence”. Developers often see the customer as the domain expert and so they aren’t confident to make hard decisions on their behalf. We’ve all heard the refrain, “just let them decide how they want it” far, far too many times.
    There is nothing wrong of course with respecting your customer’s expertise but customers don’t want to be overwhelmed with configuration options. While it can be easy to justify why you’d want to give the user an option for any isolated decision, the collective weight of all the decisions pushed to the customer can be crushing. I agree with Joel that the vast majority of user options represent a missed opportunity to make a hard decision that would benefit the user and the software.

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