FogBugz 4½ and Subjective Well-Being

Let me tell you the story of how we came to be shipping FogBugz 5.0 about six months earlier than expected.

It’s kind of a long story.

It turns out that students in Canada like to organize their own conferences, and a couple of years back they organized one and invited me to speak.

College students make great audiences. They’ll laugh at anything. I gathered together a bunch of random ideas and some funny slides I downloaded from the Internet (one of which is shown at right, proving that there’s life on Mars) and they were rolling in the aisles.

One theme from that speech was based on the most important thing that I learned in Psych 110, the idea that when people are successful at controlling their environment they become happier, and when they can’t control their environment, they get grumpy.

(Actually, using words like “happiness” and “grumpy” tends to inhibit tenure, so a real psychologist would say something like “repeated failure inhibits the experience of agency, decreasing subjective well-being.”)

Put people in direct control of the stuff around them and they will, more or less, on average, be happier. It explains why some people like stick shifts, it explains why lethargic user interfaces make you frustrated and depressed, and it explains why people get so goddamn mad when Sony decides to install viruses on their computers just because they tried to listen to a CD.

If you’re a software designer, this is it. This is your big chance to do something meaningful to improve the world. Design software that puts the user in control and you’ll increase happiness, even if your product is the most boring accounting software imaginable. You can do this at the most microscopic levels:

  • The bookkeeping software I’ve been using for the last six years makes a beep when you record a transaction.
  • The Apple iPod includes a tiny internal speaker so that the thumbwheel sounds like it’s clicking when you rotate it.
  • The Sonos digital music system has a handheld controller with a motion sensor built in. The instant you pick it up, the screen lights up.

You can also screw it up:

  • Most modern cell phones have mushy on/off buttons that take forever to turn on. It’s hard to tell if you didn’t press hard enough because the phone acts like it’s ignoring you.
  • The people who make DVD movies seem to think that it’s OK to disable the Menu and Fast Forward buttons while they’re showing you advertisements and ridiculous FBI warnings.
  • Web browsers deal with the security problem by displaying a seemingly endless series of modal popups asking you to confirm that you really want to have three NFL linebackers come into your home and force-feed you a football.
  • That Sonos controller has a thumbwheel that’s too sensitive to choose menu items without a lot of futzing around. Or maybe it’s just because I have fat thumbs.

In the last year or so a lot of web developers have been working hard on improving their applications using techniques now known as Ajax. These applications use JavaScript code so that when you click on something, you get immediate feedback, rather than waiting for the web server to send you a new page at its own leisurely pace. When they do need more information from the server, they often download the small fragment they need, rather than waiting for the server to build a whole new page. The net result is faster, crisper feedback that makes you feel in control and creates “subjective well-being,” a.k.a. happiness, a feeling that is biochemically NO DIFFERENT THAN EATING LARGE QUANTITIES OF CHOCOLATE.

Just a minute… I have to pause for some fact checking …

… ok, I’m back. To summarize, Ajax = Chocolate = Happiness, and so we knew, when we started planning FogBugz 5.0, that Ajax features would be an important part of this release.

The two places FogBugz users spend most of their time is in the single case page, where you view and edit cases, and the list page, where you browse, sort, slice and dice cases. With 5.0 we basically took the approach that we would go crazy with those two pages, improving everything we can about the experience using JavaScript and Ajax.

Dragging columns in FogBugz 5.0On the list page, for example, Ben added the ability to drag and drop columns, lots of intuitive new ways to select multiple bugs, the ability to resize columns and add arbitrary columns of data. It’s all done on the client and it’s all very fast.

On the single case page, where you’re looking at a single bug or email, Brett made it so that commands like Edit or Reply happen instantaneously, on the client side, in the browser, without a round trip to the server. The net result is that when you’re working through a lot of cases, you need about half as many round-trips to the server making the whole experience feel much, much more responsive. You feel in control, and you are happier. It works!

FogBugz 5.0 Keyboard ShortcutsBrett also snuck in a feature he’s been itching for: lots and lots and lots of keyboard shortcuts. There’s only one keyboard shortcut you have to memorize, though: Ctrl+; switches FogBugz into keyboard mode and little letters light up reminding you what the shortcuts are for various commands around the screen. It’s really pretty cool to be able to work through a bunch of cases, assigning, editing, and reprioritizing, without ever reaching for the mouse. Combined with the speed and responsiveness from Ajax, FogBugz has almost reached the level of speed and fluidity of my dry cleaner’s DOS 2.0 character mode database application. And that’s pretty darn responsive for a web app.

Anyway, because FogBugz is not a hosted product—we sell the software to our customers, who install it on their own servers—we try not to have too many releases, and we try to make each release really, really solid. But we do have our own FogBugz server which runs the company—it sorts incoming email, tracks bugs and features under development, serves as our recruiting database and resume file, routes incoming faxes, and manages purchase orders; I’m even using FogBugz to edit the next edition of Best Software Writing.

In a rather extreme form of eating our own dogfood, the developers put their latest build up every few days so we can all bang on it.

The more we played with the new Ajax features the more we fell in love, and the more we realized that this was the single greatest thing we had done in FogBugz in a looooong time. So we decided to ship the new features as soon as possible. We would take a few months going through a complete beta cycle, and get this stuff out to our customers right away rather than waiting for the other planned 5.0 features.

And that’s where we are today. What’s shipping today is really something like FogBugz 4½, but we’re calling it 5.0 anyway, because life is confusing enough without fractions. We’re only on year six of the “great software takes ten years” rule, but I’d say we’re more than 60% there. Check out the FogBugz homepage; there’s an online demo at


Lazy Programmer, Didn’t Handle Exception


catch(Exception *)
   print(“call customer service”);
// i guess i’m done!

I called the numbers listed, and went through several layers of menus and waiting. Of course, the person who answered at Cingular had no idea what to do. He found someone walking around his call center who told him to call some other number. He called that number, went through voice menu hell, and finally got told to call some other number. Now he’s calling that, and of course, it’s just ringing the guy next to him, who has no idea what to do, either. Of course they don’t. It’s a friggin’ unhandled exception.

Eventually they got me to another customer service representative who had been trained just to ask me what I was trying to do (add another couple of lines to my account) and do it. That’s not really a solution.

One of the hallmarks of a broken system is when there’s just no possible way that the programmer who is writing code that talks to customers can ever get feedback from those customers about bugs, because the call center is outsourced to a different company than the software development project is outsourced to. Everyone is trying their hardest to do their job but management has set it up so that it’s impossible.

Now, on to wireless companies in the USA. In the last ten years I can’t think of one time when a wireless company has been able to handle the basic things I’ve asked for (new service, cancel service, port a phone number) without 45 minutes of unbelievably incompetent service. Over the years I’ve used Sprint, the old AT&T, Cingular, and BellAtlantic, and they’re all pretty much equally messed up. All of them suffer from hard working shlubs who are stuck in a situation created by incompetent managers, who have built esoteric mountains of complicated and brittle systems with a million moving parts, 3/4’s of them outsourced, where it’s simply impossible to get anything done.

What does your code do to contact you when things go badly wrong? We use BugzScout to report unhandled problems directly into our own FogBugz database. But even if you call our customer service line you get a human who is sitting right next to the programmer.

Aardvark’d Screening in New York

When our summer internship candidates flew into New York City for their interviews, we made sure they got a hotel room with a DVD player and we left them a copy of Aardvark’d, the documentary about last summer’s interns. Despite the filmmaker’s fondness for stories about tomato plants and cockroaches, the movie works great as a recruiting tool.

This summer we have six interns, including our first-ever graphic design intern and our first-ever intern in program management. Again, we had hundreds of applications, and we had so many good candidates we only interviewed about half of the candidates we wanted to before the new office space filled up. Interns get free housing, free lunch, Aeron chairs, dual-Xeon workstations with 30″ LCD monitors, and weekly cultural events like Broadway shows, a Yankees game, and tours around New York City.

Aardvark'd - A film by Lerone WilsonIf you’re going to be in New York City next Tuesday, May 9th, join me for the premiere of Aardvark’d at the New York International Independent Film and Video Festival, at 8pm at the Village East Cinemas (Details | Order Tickets | Windows Trailer | Quicktime Trailer). If you’re not in New York, you can still buy the movie on DVD.