The Butter Test

butterI do not want to struggle with my butter. Or my software.

This morning for breakfast, I chose the “nutritious” option of a slice of buttered rye. After the obligatory ninety seconds’ wait, my freshly toasted bread popped out of the toaster. It was hot, with a little steam coming off the sides – pretty attractive for a frigid winter’s morning. But I’d forgotten to take the butter out of the refrigerator earlier – arrhgrhh, I thought, now I’m going to have to wrestle with the cold butter and try to get it to spread on my rapidly cooling toast.

I hate cutting cold butter. The butter itself is unwieldy – it tends to act like an anti-magnet (at least for me), consistently tipping the wrong way, repelling the knife at every attempt. It’s an altogether unpleasant experience, certainly not a complement to a rushed morning where you’re trying to get yourself ready for work and kids ready for school.

But — microwave that butter for about 15 seconds and everything changes. All of a sudden, the butter is at your command. The knife slices through effortlessly, like an airy ballet. The pat of butter, liberated from its stick(!) conforms to the shape of your toast with only a few strokes.

But I spend more time managing software development than I do buttering toast.

So it’s become my opinion that the software you use should feel the same as the experience of cutting the warm butter. But all too often, software feels far more like the cold butter. You try to take a decisive step with your newly coded tool, but the application jumps out from under your control. It falls on the ground, sometimes things get dirty, maybe lands face down or picks up some hair or dust, and then it becomes a struggle to work with the tool thereafter. That is, until you’ve had a while to adjust to the software, and it’s had time to adjust to the “room temperature” of the deployed environment and become more malleable. Just as the butter eventually adjusts to a temperate environment, with extended use, a user will adapt to software and be able to work with it. This is not always due to changes in the software, but to changes in the human-software sociotechnical system – that is, you just develop an all-around better relationship with the app and it becomes easier to work with.

Enter the Butter Test.

The Butter Test is the equivalent of the “5-Second” test for user interface navigability – but for software applications, web pages, web applications, APIs, or any other software-related design. (There’s even a web app that helps you conduct a formal 5-Second test.) Whereas the 5-Second test gauges your user’s first impressions when they visit your web page, the Butter Test assesses how malleable the software is upon a user’s first encounter. To do the Butter Test, spend about five minutes with a new application. You don’t have to be alone; you can get a walkthrough from someone who’s more familiar with it. How does it feel? Do you feel like you’re struggling with a cold stick of butter? Does the software respond in a jagged, unpredictable way – forcing you to catch it before it falls on the floor? Or alternatively, is your first cut at using the software smooth? Do the results feel trustworthy, interpretable, and extendable (meaning you’re left feeling empowered to do more)? Using the Butter Test, your first impressions count.

The Butter Test is not just useful for subjectively evaluating full software applications. Today, I used it to determine whether a taxonomy for a directory structure made sense. We needed a file structure for holding different types of data (with different levels of “ease to reproduce”) from different instruments. After learning more about the proposed new structure, I could immediately figure out where new data would go, how we would adapt to novel data types and processed data products, and how to access the data without an a priori knowledge of the full directory structure. By learning a few rules, I could work easily with the entire collection of data – and I learned all this in less than five minutes. The new taxonomy passed the Butter Test with flying colors.

I’ve been using the Butter Test for about 15 years and it does not disappoint. Trust your instincts. If your software was toast and butter, would you be content or frustrated?

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