Using Prototypes to Explore Project Ideas, Part III

An excerpt from my book, Programming Beyond Practices. Part of a three part series which begins here.

You arrive at the office to find the whiteboards filled with a ton of notes that weren’t there the night before. Curious about what Samara has been up to, you start to look them over.

“Oh wow! Ross will love this. What time did you get in this morning?”

“About an hour ago. I had this idea while eating breakfast, and decided to come in and start playing around with it.”

Samara looks like she didn’t get enough sleep, but you’re so happy with her idea that you feel no need to mention that.

“So, should we get started on this then? I think it looks promising, and your notes are really, really good.”

“Already done. Check the website.”

You sit down and spend a couple minutes playing around with the new features. They are all working well, especially for a first major deliverable.

“How did you build this so quickly? I assume you cut some corners as we always do, but I doubt I’d be able to get that much done in an hour.”

“Oh, you really do not want to see the code for this. You see all those recommendation scores? They’re all being stored in a single browser cookie.”

Figuring out the right balance of when to play fast and loose and when to tighten things up takes practice, but you trust Samara’s judgment. You ping Ross to collect his feedback on the new functionality:

You: Hi Ross. I’m happy to say that we have something ready to show you whenever you’re able to check it out. Just visit the website whenever you get a chance, and then I can walk you through what is going on there.

Ross: I’ll take a look soon, thanks. I wasn’t expecting to hear from you until at least lunchtime, so this is a pleasant surprise.

You: Here’s a screenshot that shows what things look like after viewing a bunch of videos. But definitely try it out yourself to get the full effect. 🙂

Screen Shot 2017-07-29 at 5.30.27 PM.png

Ross: Hey, I just spent a few minutes playing with the new feature. This is awesome!

One thing I noticed is the “interests” sidebar, which we never really talked about yesterday. Can you explain to me what that’s meant to be used for?

You: Sure. It’s worth mentioning up front that this sidebar isn’t meant to be a permanent part of the application’s interface.

Because the recommendation behavior is a little harder to explain than it is to see in action, we made this sidebar so that you can see how your tag scores are added up as you select videos in the application. Each tag is clickable, and whenever you click on a tag you will be sent to a randomly selected video in that category. You can use this to influence the scores and change the recommendation behavior.

Ross: Can you give me an example of how to try this out?

You: Sure. Click “Thelonious Monk” a bunch of times, and see what happens.

Ross: Aha! As I did that, the recommendations for antifolk music started to become less frequent, and jazz recommendations become more frequent. Eventually, the system was offering me nothing but videos from Monk, which I guess is what was supposed to happen.

You: Yep. Do you feel like you understand this now?

Ross: I think I understand it well enough to want to play with it some more, and we may even be far enough along where I can send this to a few other people today and collect their feedback as well.

I am really glad you made that sidebar, though, because I would have had trouble understanding how the recommendations system worked based on your description alone. So thanks for that.

You: It was Samara’s idea, and it’s something we really should do more of. It helps you see a little bit of what’s going on under the hood, and it gives you a chance to explore the rules we’ve implemented.

* * *

Ross: One more question before I send this out for feedback: where is the sample data coming from?

You: Right now, we’re using a very small set of hand-picked videos based off of things we saw on your blog, but this is another area where we put in some effort to allow you to customize it yourself.

The system is currently set up to read its data from a CSV file, which you can edit in any spreadsheet software. Here, take a look at a few of the records that we currently have in the system:

Screen Shot 2017-07-29 at 5.32.23 PM.png

You: The first column is the unique identifier for the video, which appears at the end of each FancyVideoService URL. The second column is the artist name, and the third column is the name of the song. Every column after that is treated as an arbitrary tag. Right now we have only two tags (genre and release year), but you can add as many of these as you want.

Ross: Wait…am I understanding this correctly? If you sent me this spreadsheet and I edited it to include any videos I wanted, you’d be able to directly import that and the videos would start showing up in the system with the tags I set?

You: Yes, that’s the basic idea. We may need to be a little careful at first just because these things do need to be correctly formatted, but this is something we can help you with where needed.

What we had in mind here is that maybe you’d want to create a list of a couple hundred songs from your blog, and then that would give you a more realistic test of the existing recommendations behavior.

Once you’ve done that, we can definitely talk about ways to automate pulling your entire collection of 4,000 songs from your blog, but we figured that could probably wait until later.

Ross: This is great. I’m going to do exactly as you suggested, and put together a small list of songs based on the blog posts. After that, I’m going to make sure that at least a handful of people get to try this out today, and by the late afternoon I should be able to share their feedback with you. From there, we can figure out what to focus on next.

I can’t thank you enough for putting this together. Really nice work.

You: This has been fun, and you’ve made our job very easy, so thank you, too.

Despite the feeling of mutual appreciation, it won’t necessarily be smooth sailing from here. As the old saying goes, “the devil is in the details,” and the next several iterations will get more detailed, probably stirring up at least one major unanticipated issue before you complete the prototyping phase.

But that isn’t a sign of a flawed process; it’s exactly what you should expect as a side effect of accelerated feedback loops. Prototypes can help you figure out how to build useful things faster, but they also help you fail faster. If you can spot a dead-end path before you’ve already spent a ton of time walking down it, it means you can spend more energy on figuring out where the right path is.

For the moment, though, both you and Samara are content to celebrate your early progress. A little bit of goodwill and trust built up in the early stages of a project can help build the kind of momentum that gets you through the inevitable rough patches that crop up in any creative work.

This completes Chapter 1 of Programming Beyond Practices!

You can also read Chapter 2 for free here.

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Have questions or feedback to share? I’d love to hear from you! Use my AMA repo, or email gregory@practicingdeveloper.com.

Thanks for reading!