Seeing things from the user's point of view

I was discussing how to avoid surprising users and someone pointed out that what seems intuitive and rational to one person is often complete insanity for others. The mental gap between a developer and a user can often be a chasm far too wide to cross. Of all the bug reports I’ve filed against MySQL, here is my all-time favorite:

select * from t where a >= 1.0order by a;

Does not cause an error. I believe it should, because there should be a whitespace before ORDER BY.

Similar syntax errors such as “select 1e0from dual” were also accepted as valid SQL. Much soul-searching later, the official reply from MySQL’s development team:

The server behaves properly here:
- “1″ alone can not be an identifier, because it’s followed by a “.”
- therefore, the lexer parses “1″ as the beginning of a number, and ends up with “1.0″ as one token.
The next token will be “order”, a keyword.

There is nothing special to document here either. What was reported is not a bug in the server, and is not a documentation bug.

What just happened here? It’s fairly simple. Never attribute to malice that which can be adequately explained by tunnel vision. The developer decided that the SQL isn’t a syntax error because the lexer is designed to parse it. If the developer were able to stand in a user’s shoes for a moment, this answer would be obviously absurd. But when you live deep in the dungeons of a large codebase, you lose the ability (despite your best intentions) to see a normal user’s point of view.

For this reason I often doubt my own judgment. I’m ignorant of my ignorance. It’s a very “meta” problem. I have to rely on others to give me a sanity check.

I suggest, as a topic of discussion, that the willingness and ability to accept others’ judgment over one’s own is an essential characteristic of good leadership. I also suggest that knowing when this is appropriate is another attribute a good leader must have. Both of these are very difficult in my experience.

I'm Baron Schwartz, the founder and CEO of VividCortex. I am the author of High Performance MySQL and lots of open-source software for performance analysis, monitoring, and system administration. I contribute to various database communities such as Oracle, PostgreSQL, Redis and MongoDB. More about me.