The perils of feature interaction

One of the most delicate aspects of design is feature interaction. As users, we suffer daily from systems offering features that individually make sense but clash with each other. In my agile book [1] I explained in detail, building on the work of Pamela Zave, why this very problem makes one of the key ideas of agile methods,  the reliance on “user stories” for requirements, worthless and damaging.

A small recent incident reminded me of the perils of feature interaction. I used my Lenovo W540 laptop without power for a short while, then reached a sedentary location and plugged it in. Hence my surprise when, some hours later, it started beeping to alert me that it was running out of battery. The natural reactions — check the outlet and the power cord — had no effect. I found the solution, but just in time: otherwise, including if I had not heard the warning sound, I would have been unable to use the laptop any further. That’s right: I would not have been able to restart the computer at all, even with access to a power outlet, and even though it was perfectly functional and so was its (depleted) battery. The reason is that the problem arose from a software setting, which (catch-22 situation) I could not correct without starting the computer [2].

The only solution would have been to find another, non-depleted battery. That is not a trivial matter if you have traveled with your laptop outside of a metropolis: the W540 has a special battery which ordinary computer shops do not carry [3].

The analysis of what made such a situation possible must start with the list of relevant hardware and software product features.

Hardware:

  • HA. This Lenovo W series includes high-end laptops with high power requirements, which the typical 65-watt airplane power jack does not satisfy.
  • HB. With models prior to the W540, if you tried to connect a running laptop to the power supply in an airplane, it would not charge, and the power indicator would start flickering.  But you could still charge it if you switched it off.
  • HC. The W540 effectively requires 135 watts and will not take power from a 65-watt power source under any circumstances.

Software:

  • SA. The operating system (this discussion assumes Windows) directly reflects HC by physically disabling charging if the laptop is in the “Airplane” power mode.
  • SB. If you disable wireless, the operating system automatically goes into the “Airplane” power mode.
  • SC. In the “Airplane” power mode, the laptop, whether or not connected through a charger to a power outlet of any wattage, will not charge. The charging function is just disabled.
  • SD. One can edit power modes to change parameters, such as time to automatic shutoff, but the no-charging property in Airplane mode is not editable and not even mentioned in the corresponding UI dialog. It seems to be a behind-the-scenes property magically attached to the power-mode name “Airplane”.
  • SE. There is a function key for disabling wireless: F8. As a consequence of SB it also has the effect of switching to “Airplane” mode.
  • SF. Next to F8 on the keyboard is F7.
  • SG. F7 serves to display the screen content on another monitor (Windows calls it a “projector”). F7 offers a cyclic set of choices: laptop only, laptop plus monitor etc.
  • SH. In the old days (like five years ago), such function keys setting important operating system parameters on laptops used to be activated only if you held them together with a special key labeled “Fn”. For some reason (maybe the requirement was considered too complicated for ordinary computer users) the default mode on Lenovo laptops does not use the “Fn” key anymore: you just press the desired key, such as F7 or F8.
  • SI. You can revert to the old mode, requiring pressing “Fn”, by going into the BIOS and performing some not-absolutely-trivial steps, making this possibility the preserve of techies. (Helpfully, this earlier style is called “Legacy mode”, as a way to remind you that your are an old-timer, probably barely graduated from MS-DOS and still using obsolete conventions. In reality, the legacy mode is the right one to use, whether for techies or novices: it is all too easy to hit a function key by mistake and get totally unexpected results. The novice, not the techie, is the one who will be completely confused and panicked as a result. The first thing I do with a new laptop is to go to the BIOS and set legacy mode.)

By now you have guessed what happened in my case, especially once you know that I had connected the laptop to a large monitor and had some trouble getting that display to work. In the process I hit Fn-F7 (feature SG) several times.  I must have mistakenly (SF) pressed F8 instead of F7 at some point. Normally, Legacy mode (SI) should have made me immune to the effects of hitting a function key by mistake, but I did use the neighboring key F7 for another purpose. Hitting F8 disabled wireless (SE) and switched on Airplane power mode (SB). At that point the laptop, while plugged in correctly, stopped charging (SC, SD).

How did I find out? Since I was looking for a hardware problem I could have missed the real cause entirely and ended up with a seemingly dead laptop. Fortunately I opened the Power Options dialog to see what it said about the battery. I noticed that among the two listed power plans the active one was not “Power Saver”, to which I am used, but “Airplane”. I did not immediately pay  attention to that setting; since I had not used the laptop for a while I just thought that maybe the last time around I had switched on “Airplane”, even though that made little sense since I was not even aware of the existence of that option. After trying everything else, though, I came back to that intriguing setting, changed to the more usual “Power Saver”, and the computer started to charge again. I was lucky to have a few percent of battery still left at that point.

Afterwards I found a relevant discussion thread on a Lenovo user forum.

As is often the case in such feature-interaction mishaps, most of the features make sense individually [4]. What causes trouble is some unforeseen combination of features.

There is no sure way to avoid such trouble, but there is a sure way to cause it: design a system feature by feature, as with user stories in agile development. The system must do this and it must do that. Oh, by the way, it must also do that. And that. User stories have one advantage: everyone understands them. But that is also their limitation. Good requirements and design require professionals who can see the whole beyond the parts.

A pernicious side of this situation is that many people believe that use cases and user stories are part of object-oriented analysis, whereas the OO approach to requirements and design is the reverse: rise above individual examples to uncover the fundamental abstractions.

As to my laptop, it is doing well, thanks. And I will be careful with function keys.

Reference and notes

[1] Bertrand Meyer: Agile! The Good, the Hype and the Ugly, Springer, 2014,  Amazon page: here, book page: here. A description of the book appeared here on this blog at the time of publication.

[2] Caveat: I have not actually witnessed this state in which a plugged-in laptop will not restart. The reason is simply that I do not have an alternate battery at the moment so I cannot perform the experiment with the almost certain result of losing the use of my laptop. I will confirm the behavior as soon as I have access to a spare battery.

[3] It has been my systematic experience over the past decade and a half that Lenovo seems to make a point, every couple of years, to introduce new models with incompatible batteries and docking stations. (They are also ever more incredibly bulky, with the one for the W540 almost as heavy as the laptop itself. On the other hand the laptops are good, otherwise I would not be bothering with them.)

[4] One exception here is feature SB: switching wireless off does not necessaril y mean you want to select a specific power mode! It is a manifestation of the common syndrome  of software tools that think they are smarter than you, and are not. Another exception is SE: to let a simple key press change fundamental system behavior is to court disaster. But I had protected myself by using legacy mode and was hit anyway.

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