Jef Claes

On software and life

02 Jun 2013

Accidental entities - what about the UI?

This post is a follow-up to my previous blog post “Accidental entities - you don’t need that identity".

In that post, we followed a consultant building an application for a car rental. One of the requirements was that the CEO could manage a collection of available colors. Although the tools at our disposal - a relational database and NHibernate - wanted to trick us into making a car reference one of these available colors by its identifier, we found out that the CEO really thinks of a car’s color as a value, and does not care about a color’s identity. This means that we didn’t make a car reference an available color, but we copied its value instead. This allows the CEO to remove available colors, without it having an impact on cars that already came in that color.

The solution we’re building contains a public facing web application that allows customers to make reservations online, and a backoffice web application - hosted on the intranet, that employees will use to manage the cars.

When a new car arrives at the car rental, a backoffice user will register it. Once the car is registered - and in use, backoffice users should still be able to change some of its characteristics; brand, model, color, engine size, etc…

Instinct tells us to add a page that enables editing all the car’s properties. Some of these properties are free text, some radio buttons, but for the car color, it’s a dropdownlist.
Halfway through implementing this new functionality, we notice that changing the color gets us into trouble. We populate the dropdownlist with all available colors, but when we want to bind the car’s current color as the selected value, it’s not in the list of available colors. The CEO has removed the car’s current color out of the list of available colors.
After a bit of tinkering, we come up with a workaround that adds the car’s current color to the available colors with a default value of -1. This allows us to determine if the color needs to be changed.

Relational databases, RAD tools, scaffolding and anemic models have poisoned our minds, making us throw up the database schema all over the UI. We can do a lot more though.
If we take a step back, and make an effort to discover what changing these properties really means to our business users, we might come up with a totally different user experience.

We leave the UI as is, and ping the CEO on Lync, inviting her for a coffee break.

After a bit of obligatory small talk, we start asking questions about what we’re really after.

Us: “Can all of the car’s characteristics change after the initial registration?”

CEO: “No, have you ever seen a car change brand, or model through its lifecycle?”

Us: “I can imagine the engine size also belongs to the list of characteristics that can’t be changed after registration?”

CEO: “Oh, it can! We sometimes have the engine of our sports models tuned to have an edge over the competition. Guys are crazy for horsepower.”

Us: “What about changing the color?”

CEO: “If a car has some nasty scratches on it, we sometimes get it repainted. If we do get it repainted, it’s always in one of the colors available at that moment.”

We return to our desk with a far better understanding of what it really means to change each of the car’s characteristics. We discovered a whole new language, with some important constraints. Neither brands nor models change after registration. Engines get tuned, increasing their engine size. A car’s color doesn’t change; a car gets repainted - always in one of the available colors.

After iterating on this feedback, we’re far more satisfied with the model; it captures the language far better. Our backend implementation is not the most important part of the solution though; it’s useful to invest in improving the UI.

After some experimentation we come up with a more task-based UI, something that looks like this.

The UI now does a far better job supporting the language and communicating its constraints. And with that, we also solved the original problem that motivated us to ask these extra questions. There is no value in having the current color in the dropdownlist; we are better off making the process of having a car repainted explicit.

When we make an effort to really capture the language, this will be reflected in our model, but also in the UI. This can add tremendous value. It’s not only about making the user experience more intuitive, but about making a language consistent for thousands of users, supporting processes and communication throughout the company.

As a disclaimer; sometimes it’s fine to just throw up your database. There’s a place and time for anything. But don’t let CRUD be the only tool in your toolbox; you can do much more. Make sure to invest this extra effort where it matters, where it makes a difference.