One of the nice things about going to a science-fiction convention is that you blend into the crowd in your obscure-reference costume. You can go about your nerdy business without anyone stopping you every 5 seconds to ask for a photo op. At Dragon*Con this year, I spent much more time wandering the halls to take in the experience than following the programmed tracks of activities. One advantage of this was the premium people-watching. Some people who are passionate costumers never appear at any of the costuming panels or track sessions. Their costumes might not even fit through the doors of the track’s room!
When you’re wandering around strangely attired in public with your 40,000 closest friends, you will inevitably encounter someone else costumed as the same character. There is a moment of recognition that offers the chance for geeky high-fives and kudos for sharing your interest. The one problem with meeting geeks who get the references is they know their subject matter deeply and can spot inaccuracies in your garb. If you are attempting to replicate an iconic image of a character, they’ll spot deviations immediately. This reminds me of something Mike Lee said in his Making Apps That Don’t Suck talk: “There’s a good chance what you think is wrong with the product, no one else notices or cares about. … Your users are probably not nerds, unless you make software for people who make software and then only God can help you.” When faced with fanboys, you cannot slack off.
On the flip side, when your costume is high quality, people may not care about recognizing the nerdy reference and stop you every 5 seconds just to admire your workmanship. The design is so well-executed or intricate that they don’t care about the subject matter and just want to stare.
“If you want to be remembered, be memorable. If you want to stand out in the crowd, it helps to come up with something other than just looking like everybody else.” — Mike Lee
The real geek gold is in a high-quality obscure-reference ensemble that gets you both kinds of attention. [And if you can actually work popular culture into this mix, you’re golden.]
Big Fish in a Big Pond
I attacked the costuming problem in the same way I attack my testing: with the goal of having the best execution. I know that the users of my software are the nerds of their genre (niche market), much more intricately familiar with the nuances of their business than I. I know that missteps in the vital functions will not go unnoticed or unreported. The software must satisfy the production quality its highly specialized market demands. For niche markets, “the final product quality … is associated more with the specific needs that the product is aimed at satisfy.” (Wikipedia) I studied my source material, in this case Neil Gaiman’s Sandman graphic novels, and noted all the little tell-tale character attributes that must be preserved to be faithful to the design, or in this case the many designs.
However, I know that a faithful reproduction is not what I want to deliver. I want an unexpected element in my ensemble that would transform a good idea to great. I was tempted to purchase a fish balloon and carry that around the con, but I was much happier when I discovered a navigable fish blimp as the perfect accessory for my Delirium. Similarly, knowing what people (human oracles) say they want in their software is only the first step in satisfying their needs, so we cannot limit our testing to only the scenarios they state they want to execute but instead we must explore beyond the known. We can be advance scouts reporting back the plausibility of satisfying those unstated needs. “The essential value of any test case lies in its ability to provide information (i.e. to reduce uncertainty).” – Cem Kaner & James Bach
Then we can take a shot at that surprise and delight that Mike Lee advocates and really wow the crowd.