Software for Use

Here’s confession of a full time software developer: I hate most software. With passion. 

Why I Hate Software

Software developers and people around the process are often very self-centered and care more about having a good time than designing a useful product. They add a ton of cool but useless and bugged features. They create their own layers of frameworks and reinvent everything every time, because writing code is so much more fun than writing, reusing or improving it.

They don’t care about edge cases, bugs, rare conditions and so on. They don’t care about performance. They don’t care about usability. They don’t care about anything but themselves.

Examples? Firefox that has to be killed with task manager because it slows to a crawl during the day on most powerful hardware. Linux which never really cared or managed to solve the issues with drivers for end user hardware. Google maps showing me tons of hotel and restaurant names instead of street names, the exact opposite of what I want when planning a trip. Eclipse or its plugins that require me to kill the IDE from task manager, waste some more time, and eventually wipe out the entire workspace, recreate it and reconfigure.

All the applications with tons of forms, popups, dialogs and whatnot. Every error message that is a page long, has a stacktrace, cryptic code and whatever internal stuff in it. All the bugs and issues in open source software, which is made in free time for fun, rarely addressing edge cases or issues happening to a few percent users because they’re not fun.

It’s common among developers to hate and misunderstand the user. It’s common even at helpdesk, support and many people who actually deal with end users. In Polish there is this wordplay “u?yszkodnik”, a marriage of “u?ytkownik” (user) and “szkodnik” (pest).

What Software Really Is About

Let me tell you a secret.

The only purpose of software is to serve. We don’t live in a vacuum, but are always paid by someone who has a problem to solve. We are only paid for two reasons: To save someone money, or to let them earn more money. All the stakeholders and users care about it is solving their problems.

I’ve spent quite a few years on one fairly large project that is critical for most operations of a corporation. They have a few thousand field workers and a few dozen managers above, and only a handful of people responsible for software powering all this. Important as it is, the development team is a tiny part of the entire company.

Whenever I design a form, a report, an email or whatever that the end user will ever see, the first and most important thing to do is: Get in their shoes. Understand what they really need and what problem they are trying to solve. See how we can provide it to the them so that it’s as simple, concise, self-explanatory and usable as possible. Only then we can start thinking about code and the entire backend, and even then the most important thing to keep in mind is the end user.

We’re not writing software for ourselves. Most of the time we’re not writing it for educated and exceptionally intelligent geeks either. We write it for housewives, grandmas, unqualified workers, accountants, ladies at bookshops or insurance companies, all kinds of business people.

We write it for people who don’t care about software at all and do not have a thorough understanding of it. Nor do they care care how good a time you were having while creating it. They just want to have the job done.

You’re Doing It Wrong

If someone has to ask or even think about how something works, it’s your failure. If they perform some crazy ritual like rebooting the computer or piece of software, or wipe out a work directory, that’s your fault. If they have to go through five dialogs for a job that could be done with two clicks, or are forced to switch between windows when there is a better way, it’s your failure. When they go fetch some coffee while a report that they run 5 times a day is running, it’s your fault. If there is a sequence of actions or form entries that can blow everything up, a little “don’t touch this” red button, it’s your fault. Not the end user’s.

It’s not uncommon to see a sign in Polish offices that reads (sadly, literally): “Due to introduction of a computer system, our operations are much slower. We are sorry for the inconvenience.” Now, that’s a huge, epic failure.

Better Ways

That’s quite abstract, so let me bring up a few examples.

IKEA. I know furniture does not seem as complicated as software, but it’s not that trivial either. It takes some effort to package a cabinet or a chest of drawers in a cardboard box that can be assembled by the end user. They could deliver you some wood and a picture of cabinet, and blame you for not knowing how to turn one into another. They could deliver a bunch of needlessly complicated parts without a manual, and blame the user again.

They know they need to sell and have returning customers, not just feel good themselves and blame others.

What they do is carefully design every single part and deliver a manual with large, clear pictures and not a single line of text. And it’s completely fool-proof and obvious, so that even such a carpentry ignorant as you can assemble it.

LEGO. Some sets have thousands of pieces and are pretty complex. So complex that it would be extremely difficult even for you, craftsman proficient in building stuff, to reproduce.

Again, they could deliver 5,000 pieces and a single picture to you and put the blame on you for being unable to figure it out. Again, that’s not what what they do. They want to sell and they want you to return. So they deliver a 200-page-long manual full of pictures, so detailed and fool-proof that even a child can do it.

There are good examples in software world as well. StackOverflow is nice, but only for certain kind of users. It’s great for the Internet geeks who get the concept of upvotes, gamification, focusing on tiny narrow parts and not wider discussion etc. Much less for all kinds of scientists and, you know, regular people, who seem to be the intended audience of StackExchange.

Google search and maps (for address search, intuitiveness and performance), DuckDuckGo are pretty good. Wolfram Alpha. Skyscanner and Himpunk. Much of the fool-proof Apple hardware and software.

In other words, when you know what it does and how to use it the first time you see it, and it Just Works, it’s great.

Conclusion

Successful startups know it. They want to sell and if they make people think or overly complicate something, people will just walk on by. I guess many startups fail because they don’t realize it. Many established brands try to do it and learn from startups, simplifying and streamlining their UIs (Amazon, MS Office, Ebay…). It’s high time we applied it to all kinds of software, including the internal corporate stuff and open source.

After all, we’re only here to serve and solve problems of real people.

That’s the way you do it.

Reference: Software for Use from our JCG partner Konrad Garus at the Squirrel’s blog.

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