Fair Ellen

sat12may2007—19w132d36%— 06h54m00s—0utc

A Fair Ellen (noun) could be a roundabout, inefficient, sometimes extravagant and always pathetic behavior to get around a bug in a product. Particularly when it lingers on long after said bug has been fixed. From Bruce Tognazzini’s inspired collie metaphor.

Albert Payson Terhune, the author who taught the world to love collies (Lad, A Dog , et. al.), once wrote an article for the Saturday Evening Post (March 26, 1927 issue) about his beloved collie, Fair Ellen.

Terhune explained that Fair Ellen.. had been born blind, but learned to live quite happily, except for one small quirk:

If I stand beside her kennel yard and call to her to come and be put up, she does not approach me in a straight line, but along an imaginary path which has perhaps six or seven twists and turns.

This used to puzzle me, until one day I saw her run against a wheelbarrow which one of the men had left in the open patch of fairway between the house and her kennel. That was three years ago. Never since then does she come to that spot without making a careful detour around the imaginary barrow.

Her twisting course, along all familiar bits of ground, is due to her effort to skirt some box or rake or other obstruction which at some times she has struck against. She has preternatural memory for such things and for the precise spot in which once they were.

Users do the same thing. Users’ behavior will not necessarily change..%(white)[when the bug that brought that behavior into being is fixed]%. Once people have learned something no longer works, once they have formed a new habit, no matter how inefficient that habit is, they tend to perpetuate it.

Bruce Tognazzini, “When Good Design => Bad Product”:http://www.asktog.com/columns/059QualityAssurance.html, December, 2003

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