Show, Don't Tell
Jeff Atwood is so right, I practically shouted “Slamma-lamma-ding-dong” when I read this line:
So what, then, are the alternatives to XML? One popular choice is YAML. I could explain it, but it's easier to show you. Which, I think, is entirely the point.
Now, I don’t mean, “Jeff Atwood is right that YAML is better than XML.” Well, I believe it is better than XML for a lot of things, but which things and how often and he didn’t exactly say that any ways.
What I actually mean is that Jeff is absolutely right that some things should not be explained, they should be directly experienced. It’s better to show them than to try to explain them.
Things that involve changes to human behaviour do not lend themselves to explanation. You have to try things. Or observe people trying things. Trying to explain it just doesn’t work, even though we humans have a huge and futile desire to try—including writing weblogs just like this.
Think about user interfaces. Imagine yourself traveling back in time to the eighties—last century!—and trying to “explain” Excel to someone who was a master of Lotus 1-2-3. They have seen a mouse in the computer store—it came with its own card and you configured jumpers to set the interrupt so it wouldn’t conflict with their extended memory.
A Tablet PC. I once claimed it was The first Windows computer good enough to criticize. Its flagship application, OneNote, was and is the best idea sketching and note taking application I have ever used.
Alas, I cannot explain why some combinations of software and hardware—like a TabletPC running OneNote or an iPod touch—simply work without putting one in your hands to try.
Now you are going to explain why they will be more productive pushing a plastic bar of soap around their desk instead of banging out slash commands at high speed? Are you crazy?
The only way this person will consider Excel is if you show them Excel
. And I speak as a man who was there. At one time, Excel was so good that people would switch from their PCs with 1-2-3 to Excel on a Macintosh just to get Excel. Until, for some mysterious reason, Microsoft brought out Excel on Windows and the Windows version could use 8MB of RAM while the Macintosh version was limited to 1MB of RAM. Dunno why.
Or how about software development. What do you mean releasing software every two weeks or every month? It takes three to four months just to plan a release around here! And hey, that “better search” thingie you were droning on and on about? How much better can searching the Internet really be? Why would anyone care?
But when people see
iterative development in action, when people use
the Internet, and when people watch
Google’s stock price… they get it, immediately.
The interesting thing is this: things that are easy to explain are things that fit with our incomplete and wrong mental models of how the world works. We have built a whole UI industry around trying to match our guesses of how people think, like imagining that an icon of a pair of scissors will tell people that clicking there will cause whatever they have selected to vanish and be held in some invisible suspension, waiting for them to click the icon that looks like a bottle of Kindergarten glue.
Whereas things that break those models are impossible to explain, because they aren’t just like whatever we already believe. So? So those are the things that have a shot at doing something new, at disrupting
our behaviour. Like making CRUD web applications easy to build
or a mobile web browser that doesn’t suck
You recall that Apple—know know a thing or two about disrupting human behaviour—introduced the iPhone with advertisements that simply showed them in action
. I wonder why?
I am going to stop trying to explain that you should not try to explain some things to people. You don’t have to trust my word on the subject: Open your eyes and observe for yourself
. When things involve human behaviour, it’s better to show than to tell.