The Art and Balancing Act of Flexibility

GNU MeditateWhen developing any application, it’s important to ask oneself, “How much flexibility am I granting the end user?”

The programs that run on our computers are dynamic.  Rather quickly, they can be shaped and formed to suit the needs of end users.  As long as software bloat/feature creep is kept under control, customization and modification remain two critical ingredients in the evolution of any application.  Who will make these changes, and how easy will it be?  This is common sense stuff, but it’s a subject that doesn’t get discussed nearly enough, and a subject that is very often overlooked or ignored by choice.

Obviously, writing your application with this much flexibility takes more time and attention to detail, but your application will stand above the crowd as a result of your work.  If I were to write a database application, I could hard code the SQL CREATE statements and all associated schema creation statements.  No variables need be taken from the user aside from the location of the database server, and the database server login credentials.  The point is, everything can be made transparent to the end user.  This is good for 99% of users, and it’s good for support.  You know what your database will be called, and you know exactly what tables, columns, data types are in your database.

What about your fellow programmers or system administrators? These are the individuals who will be recommending your application to friends, family, and colleagues.  They want flexibility.  They want to put their stamp on things, and they might like their database to be called whatever they want to name it. To provide this, you can allow advanced users to choose their own database name.  In the main portion of your application, just reference this database name as a variable (which it will likely now be anyway, by virtue of the fact that it can be changed by the user).  The point is, by allowing the end user to choose the name of their database, you’ve just made your application a tiny bit more customizable.  Is it a small gift?  Absolutely, but it’s better than nothing.  You can build from here.  What else can you allow the user to customize?  Would it be cool if they could their own add custom tables or columns?  Make it so.  Just remember to do so without allowing them to break anything or compromise the integrity of the application, because if there is a problem it will not be their fault.  You as the application developer will ultimately be held accountable for the flaws in your application, and rightfully so.

So exercise moderation, don’t forget to have fun, and whether you’re writing a small script or an entire CMS, test your application before rolling it out to users. Think of your applications as malleable, and you’ll be on the right track toward mastering the Art of Flexibility.

Michael is the creator and main author of the Smalley Creative Blog. He is a guy who enjoys technology (particularly open source), educating people about technology, and working with people who enjoy technology as much as he does. Follow him on Twitter @michaeljsmalley.

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