What Wordle Taught Me About Program Development

Posted on April 24, 2023

Wordle style image with the following words from top to bottom: serve, proud, cares, loyal, local, ELGL.

Today’s Morning Buzz is by Erin Krause Riley, Adult Services Coordinator for the Scottsdale (Arizona) Public Library. Connect with me on LinkedIn.

What I’m Watching: Ted Lasso, among other things. I am savoring the new season. And now already awaiting the next season of Shrinking. Bill Lawrence is a genius. 

What I’m Reading: When people hear that I work for the public library, a lot of them say “Wow, that’s cool. I would love to be able to read all day.” It’s all I can do to stop myself from saying, “Me too – I would love to read all day, but that never happens.” Perhaps that misconception, and others about the public library today, will be the subject of another Buzz. 


My job at the public library is program development. Sadly, libraries still can’t quite shake their image as dark, dank vaults of knowledge where people are regularly shushed by imperious, cardigan-wearing women with severe up-dos. But really, today’s libraries are dynamic places full of story hours and STEAM programming  and crafts workshops and lectures by local experts on all kinds of topics. In fact, we entertain ideas for programs to highlight every area of our collection to make books and the many other materials we have come alive for our communities.

I’ve learned over the years, given the diversity of age, economic situation, and background of our “adult” library users, that you can’t please all of the people all of the time. Rather than letting that be a source of stress (mostly because really, that field is already pretty full) I’ve decided to embrace that variety as license to try new things and make changes as needed. Strangely, this epiphany was brought on as I pondered my daily Wordle

If you’ve been living under a rock or are somehow immune to internet trends, Wordle is a word game which appears in the New York Times daily. It does now, I mean. It started as kind of an underground, word-of-mouth sort of thing, but we won’t get into the twisty tale here. You can read about it in the Wikipedia article linked above. 

I started playing the Wordle about six months before it was acquired by the NYT, and have played it on the daily ever since. It’s one game a day, and you can keep track of your score over time. You get six chances to guess a five-letter word beginning from a starter word, and using the clues you get about whether the letters in your starter word are in the target word. The clues are whether the letter is included and where it falls in the word. I’ve missed about four in the last couple of years, but other than that,

it’s usually a nice way to start with a win for the day and a tiny bit of pride as my streak builds.

“But Erin,” you might be thinking, “what does this have to do with program development?” Well, it was while doing my Wordle a while ago that I realized it holds plenty of lessons for the programmer (not just at the library) who develops and plans public events and activities on a regular basis. Here are a couple of the insights I can share:


You have to start somewhere to get into the game. 

Some Wordlers use the same word every time they start the game, trying to immediately assess whether commonly used letters are part of the word. This can be an effective strategy, and lots of people swear by it, but after playing about a hundred times, I felt like I had to branch out. Now, when I open the Wordle screen, I look at the blank spaces and type the first five-letter word that comes to mind, and let the chips fall where they may. While I don’t have hard data to back up my assessment, I think that my success rate is about the same as when I use the starter word. I’ve even had a day where the word I thought of was the Wordle. (Strangely, I thought I would be happier getting the word on the first try, but I rolled that around in the old brain pan for a minute: That doesn’t mean I’m a skilled player, it means I’m a lucky guesser in a really random way.) The lesson here is that both starting points are valid: Sometimes our best programs spring from seeds of inspiration, and sometimes they come from building on the tried and true.  The important thing is to start.

And here’s a bonus insight from the lucky guess: You may find you are prouder of something you have to tinker with and really develop than you are of something that is the product of sheer luck. Though I don’t think this insight extends to something like winning lottery numbers, I’m pretty sure that’s a piece of random luck we could learn to live with.


Failure is built into the development process – so embrace it and Fail Forward.

Wordle is the quickest and gentlest way I know to remember that we learn from our mistakes as much as (or even more than) we learn from our successes. If I set up a program at the library and only a few people show up, I have to try to figure out what went wrong. It’s like my starter word: Some of the letters are in the target word, but not in the way I predicted. I have to think about how to rearrange things to try again, and then see what happens if I run the parts separately. The thing to remember is that every program we develop provides experience and data we can use to plan something even better the next time – that’s the way to fail forward.

Here’s another bonus insight from the lucky first guess: Sometimes – certainly more often than I get the Wordle on the first try – my data has predicted the demand for a program correctly. We ran a serious film study series this year and it was a smashing success (mostly because the volunteer who taught the classes was so amazing). When the amazing volunteer offered to teach the class, we tried it because our data about interest in cinema classics indicated a high possibility of success. It was a nice chance to make a good first guess and I am going to take the win. 


You’ve gotta know when to fold ‘em. 

As the great Kenny Rogers taught us, sometimes giving up is winning. In Wordle you get six chances, and that’s enough. I haven’t done the math, but I bet there are some combinations of letters which would produce more than six actual words which are NOT the target word. But after six attempts, Wordle says you have to fold, and come back and play the next day with a new set of guesses. It’s the same with program development. Six iterations are more than anyone needs to make something work, because by then, you are failing sideways, not forward. Sometimes you just have to admit that something has failed and let it go.

We’ve tried multiple iterations of science fiction book discussions at our library. It seems like a great idea, right? Science fiction is full of cool space-age stuff and also dripping with themes ready to spark a great conversation. But it didn’t work in person and it didn’t work virtually. It didn’t work at the main library, and it didn’t work at a branch. Every time we launched it, we had enthusiastic librarians who spent a month reading a sci-fi classic, only to find there was no one who wanted to discuss it with them. Even though it was listed on our calendar for several more months, we cut our losses and canceled. And no one minded, because no one was coming anyway… there was no point in putting in the staff time anymore or buying snacks to feed the people who didn’t show up, so admitting our failure turned out to be the best option. 

I would love to follow the pattern I set so far and tell you there’s a bonus insight here, but this is what it is – read the room and cancel gracefully when you’ve used your last guess. Happily, this is pretty rare, but knowing that failure is an option, and that it is okay to let go, is very important. It gives you the security to try something new because you know that if it doesn’t work, you can give it up and reallocate your resources to successful programs, or to another new idea. 

Ah – there’s the bonus Wordle insight: You can always play again tomorrow, because you start every day with a clean slate.

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