I know what I did last summer

You, like most people on this planet, probably have a dishwasher. Even if you don’t, you almost certainly know how to use one. I, on the other hand, had neither owned nor used a dishwasher until last summer when thanks to an outstandingly generous gift from friends, we took delivery of a beautiful newish appliance and the Cobra family finally joined the 21st century.

Getting the dishwasher from its old location to its current one was not an unchallenging operation. Firstly, it required loading into the car. This kerfuffle of industrial-grade tetrising completed pretty much event free until it was observed that water was coming out of various holes in the car. There are many holes in the car only a few of which, such as the doors, are meant to be there. The swiss cheese that is the car containment vessel was demonstrating that dishwashers contain magic compartments all of which are full of water. Additionally, the so-called “empty pipes” (honestly, we actually emptied them) were not empty at all. Safely absorbed into the car, with water dripping from every crevice, I expressed my many thanks and with a bladder soon to be alarmingly full of tea, I departed. Driving an antique car with tyres that could probably do with an air top-up complete with a vast appliance in the boot is like driving a boulder on springs. With the typical british summer raining surprise torrents of rain onto the road, I boated myself back home, both surprised and relieved to arrive alive and well. Mrs Cobras and I managed to wrestle the appliance into the garage and went off to enjoy a friend’s first birthday (or, to be more accurate, our friend’s son’s first birthday, we don’t have many one year old friends). I ate much cake. I like cake.

I appreciate that you’re probably gripped by this story. I’d like to say it gets more interesting, but it doesn’t — although there is a cool flood moment a little later on that’s worth hanging around for — so if you’re still with me, I can only apologise.

Dishwasher is Good and Evil

Every appliance has a dark side. This one’s dark side allowed it to trample the competition and win this year’s “DOCUMENTATION WITH THE MOST ASSUMPTIONS EVER ABOUT PRIOR KNOWLEDGE” award.

Sunday night, friends come over for an innocent roast dinner. Of course, bloke visitor was roped into helping me lug the dishwasher up to the kitchen on the first floor. We got to the top of the stairs with this device, which weighs the same as a box of anvils, before realising that the stair-gate I’d lovingly installed to prevent baby Cobra from escaping narrowed the available space to slightly less than the width of a standard appliance. Balanced on the top stair, and held in thin air by various arms, tools were passed up and down and the stair-gate was disassembled. Incidentally, this is a cracking demonstration of why “planning ahead” has so much value in life.

Finally, the dishwasher slid nicely and snuggly into its little hole.

And there it stayed until Monday night when I had a few moments to double check that everything was correctly connected before doing something stupid, like switching it on. I routed the waste pipe exactly as the documentation said and attached it to a nice handy little attachment under the sink. Wey hey! All done. Water on, no explosions, time to add all the bits and pieces.

Now I recognise that this is all obvious to you, but it wasn’t to me. I see the television adverts that look like flying jellyfish scenes from Avatar about just how amazing these “all in one” tablets are. Various friends have described those adverts as “lies”, “bollocks”, “criminally wide of the mark” and, my favourite, “designed to snare the lazy and bone idle with promises that can’t be kept”. I have been told that you get the best results — by far — if you use separate softening salt, rinse aid and detergent. So, off to the supermarket I had gone to buy these three things. The supermarket shelves, I observed, are specifically designed to hide these items, so I can only assume margins are quite low on them or they can’t be blended easily with horse. I therefore felt a degree of pride that I was able to find all three and successfully get home with them without being upsold all sorts of crap (I did buy two crunchies, though).

Right! Time to put all those things into the various slots and holes. Like sex, I figured it would be obvious. Blah blah, in, out, put this here, that there, rotate 90 degrees, etc. After all, I had the manual, so it should be a doddle, right?

Let me just say. Dishwasher instruction manuals are designed for people with prior knowledge of dishwashers. It is assumed that nobody left on the planet is unfamiliar with the basics. It’s like when a manual says “plug it in”. They don’t feel the need to show you a picture of a plug, a socket and show you how to orientate the plug and slide it in, they just assume you know that shit, right? It’s fundamental knowledge. Well, I felt like a caveman trying to fly a 747. Put the salt in, it says. It doesn’t say how much. It doesn’t explain that the hole it goes in should be full of water. Armed with the entire Internet’s knowledge on the subject and the manual, it took me twenty whole fucking minutes to suss this out. Even then, I was worried that I was pouring salt into the flux capacitor socket and destabilising the plasma injectors.

Loading the rinse aid was just as hard. With no indication of how much, I just did it the same as the salt. Add a bit. Close door. Switch on. Is the low level light off? What? No? Ok, open door, add more, repeat. Finally, salt and rinse aid added. Put the detergent into the fucking odd looking two holes. Close door. Detergent pours out of one of them. Is that right? Oh, yes, it turns out it is. Nice of them to say that in the “documentation”.

Ok, all done. Test dishes loaded. Start.

Humm. Whirr. Buzz. Well, it was making all the right noises. I heard water going in, stuff going on, all looked good!

Until twenty minutes later. FLASHING LIGHTS. THEY’RE ALL FLASHING. NOOOOOOOO! Check the manual. Oh, what? That’s a code that isn’t covered in the troubleshooting? What have I done? Have I broken it? Opened door. A couple of centimetres of water. Ah. Ok, drainage problem. Take drainage pipe off (with a saucepan underneath just incase). Hissing noise. Uh huh. Check attachment. Opps! Little black stopper! Remove stopper. Try again. Same problem. Remove pipe again. Hissing noise. So I poked the attachment: ah yes, so it’s not actually cut and therefore was going nowhere. Tested this by switching Mr Machine on and off quickly with the pipe poking into a saucepan. Dumped drainage tube into option 2, the stand-pipe, and Bob’s my uncle, the dishwasher continued! Another DIY victory, safely chalked up.

The next morning, Mrs Cobras opened the door to reveal… WASHED DISHES. Washed automagically by a wondrous machine of splendour!

What’s the worst that can happen?

I’m not a plumber. I’m a software architect. A technology strategist. A programmer (but absolutely not a ‘coder’, one of the wankiest undervaluations of a software developer’s skills and role ever coined). I design and implement applications, simulations and algorithms. I talk about them, I sit in meetings, I write documents. But me, with pipes? Not a good idea. Still, the stand-pipe option was trivial with a capital T, so even I can figure that out. Well, allow me to let you in on a little secret: don’t. Just don’t. Get a plumber. A few weeks later, Mrs Cobras and I were sitting comfortably in the lounge, drinking wine and watching the telly whilst the dishwasher whirred away cleaning our dishes. We’d have gone to bed, but there was a disagreement over whether we should open another bottle of wine, so eventually we played it safe and did so. Had we not have had more wine1, the following… learning experience… would have contained 500% more learning than we needed for the lesson to be absorbed.

Water.

Lots of water.

The critical piece, when missing, causes floods

Why, oh WHY didn’t I call a plumber? The “critical piece” is a clip that stops Mr Pipe slithering like Mr Snake when water flows through him.

Sounding… more watery than one would expect. In fact, it sounded like water was pouring out of something. Eyes met over a glass of wine, looked at kitchen, and off we went. The dishwasher waste pipe had popped out of the stand-pipe and was pouring water into the cupboard under the sink. This in turn was leaking on four sides onto the floor. The ten minutes that followed are a bit of a blur, but several rolls of kitchen towels were involved as well as the discovery that the kitchen installers had simply brushed their building detritus underneath the kitchen cupboards because they were lazy fuckwits doing a typically half-arsed job. Clearly my moral high-ground position here is shaky, but they were supposed to be professionals, whereas my plumbing qualifications… still, I digress.

It turned out, incidentally, that there is a funny little bit of plastic (A “Flibop”, as I call them) that sits on the pipe and stops it from snaking its way backwards when water pours through it. See Figure A, “why, why, WHY didn’t I call a plumber” for details of the missing bit.

Obvious thing isn’t obvious

You may find this amusing, and if you do, I hate you. But irrational hate aside, obvious things are only obvious if you know a little about the subject. And I didn’t. So I screwed it up. And believe me, I read the documentation provided with the dishwasher with great care. Problem was, it was shite, and made massive leaps of faith as to how much the reader already knew.

However, I have been told that life in the kitchen is unacceptable without a dishwasher. Never having had one, I failed to see how this could be the case. After all, I can cook an entire roast and bake a cake without needing a dishwasher, so surely, they can’t be that good?

Well, yeah, they are.

Mr Dishwasher, I love you.

Mr Dishwasher manufacturer, though, you, like so much of the world have no comprehension how to write documentation that makes sense. You make the same bloody mistakes every time:

  1. One manual covers ten variations of the product. You just put footnotes everywhere saying “not available on all variants” without specifying which.
  2. Illustrations cover one variant. This leaves the user baffled and confused unless they have prior knowledge, plus, the onus is on the user to unwind the complexity, not the documentation: this is the wrong way around.
  3. Like crap cookbooks, you do not specify amounts anywhere. “For a while”, “a bit”, “add salt” don’t help me understand how much or how long.
  4. Badly translated english, poor perspective on illustrations. This, coupled with a baffling insistence on saving on localisation costs by labelling everything on pictures with A, B, C, D, E… etc. and then providing a faulty key in the main text. What? J? There’s no J.

I hate you, but not your product.

Lessons in software

Well, it’s time for some tenuous, shaky link that attaches this to the field of software development. You can treat the above as the longest introduction to a software rant ever or this paragraph as the worst segue ever, whatever wobbles your jelly. User interfaces. Yours, and your documentation, probably suck. Frankly, these days, it is all about degrees of suckage. Even Apple seem to be joining so many levels of simplicity together that it becomes complex2. If you want your user experience to suck less than everyone else’s does, get people who’ve never used – or seen – your software before, and get them on the case. And listen to them. They’re not stupid if they can’t use it, they just don’t have the benefit of prior knowledge. I built a 4 bit microprocessor out of NAND gates when I was a kid, but I couldn’t figure out for the life of me how to work or plumb a dishwasher. So, in handy tear-out bullet-point form, here are the relevant lessons:

The incredibly un-user friendly 'Tuesdicoccus Daylorii'

This germ is responsible for terrifying symptoms, it’s the Tuesdicoccus Daylori – but even he is more user friendly (and certainly easier to install) than most software these days.

  • You, yes YOU, cannot evaluate your own software’s user interface. You are the worst judge of your own UI.
  • No, I mean it. You can’t. Get someone who’s never used it before. Plonk them in front of it. Ask them to use it. Give them no clues other than a “back of box” paragraph.
  • Seriously, I wasn’t kidding. If you’ve used it, you already take it for granted. You’ll iterate it based on stuff you already know about using it.
  • User interfaces are easy to get ‘inside out’ – make sure they go in the direction the users expect, from the focus of attention inwards.

(And your ‘free’ bonus point: don’t put a shrunken down PC user interface experience onto a touch-based device. Please. It’ll suck more than a room full of vacuum cleaners. It’s like controlling a mouse pointer with a console controller: it’s just wrong, and you know it. They’re fondleslabs, as The Register calls them. They beg to be fondled, design so that they are.)

I’m sure you get the point. UIs and documentation are, in my humble opinion, one of the few areas in life where gradual iteration doesn’t tend towards excellence – it tends towards layers of steaming dung lovingly built from good intentions.

This is even more important today than it has ever been. With “freemium” and “ad-supported” being the flavour of the day, users (or “products” as they are now known) invest precisely nothing to get started. If your software isn’t self-documenting, bloody obvious and utterly unchallenging to use then they’ll move on. Stuff has to be a joy to use, beg to be interacted with and have no barriers to entry at all. None.

I’ve awarded medals for this sort of rubbish before, so today’s goes to Hotpoint and their Aquarius dishwasher. Speech! Speech!

Anyway, it’s time for a relaxing, stress relieving tea. I shall have it in a mug lovingly cleaned by the new inhabitant in the kitchen. Muuuhahahahahaha!


1 Remember folks: Wine. Saves lives. And floods. Drink some today.
2 I was over-preparing some notes for a talk a while back and I observed that iCloud was saying “hey, there’s a different version of this document on the computer ‘Sack of Snakes’. Which one do you want?”, to which I thought, “well, I don’t know. You’re the data-processing device capable of billions of operations per second, why don’t you tell me. Show me the differences, side by side, and let me slide around things nicely on my iPad until I’ve got it sorted and then give me a big, magic button labeled “yey, and make it so.”. It is amazing how small changes and tweaks, when added together, result in something so unfriendly.

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