Tag Archives: UI

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.

IDEs of the Future

I suspect that by now everyone has seen Bret Victor’s “Inventing on Principle” talk. If you haven’t, here it is:

Bret Victor – Inventing on Principle from CUSEC on Vimeo.

I found it great and inspiring not only for the interactive features, but also for the moral parts. I’ve seen some previous inventions by Bret in the past around WorryDream.com. I wish I had been taught science like this. I try to teach like this, and this definitely is the way I am going to try to teach my children with.

Back to the point, though. Cool as they were, Bret’s interactive examples made me ask myself whether it could work with something more complicated (or less contrived?). I was not quite sure.

Today Prismatic served me Chris Ganger’s Light Table – similar concept, even inspired by Bret, applied to an IDE. Take a look at this video:

The video tells a lot, but if you prefer text you can read more at Chris’ blog.

Now, this is something that probably could work. Maybe not exactly like showed here, maybe not that minimalistic, but it has some ideas that I would really like to see in my IDE today.

  • Showing and searching documentation this way seems absolutely possible. Eclipse does not do it for me yet, though.
  • I would really love to see this kind of view where you focus on a single chunk of code (class, method or function) and can automatically see all the referenced bits (and only them) and navigate back and forth. I imagine a navigable graph that takes me between places, but it shows contents of more than one file at a time, and is not really based on files but “chunks” like functions or classes. Does not seem very far either, and could be as life-changing as multiple desktops or monitors (if not more).
  • Finally, the interactive debugging. Looks great and could work on functional language like Clojure and I can see how it would work there. It would be one hell of an effort to get it working for Java though, with all the encapsulation and baroque ceremony.

All in all, very inspiring ideas. I really hope my IDE does some of those things one day. Keep up the good work, guys!

Fitt’s Law and Dual Monitors

Thanks to Jeff Atwood at Coding Horror I recently discovered the good old Fitt’s law. To make a long story short, it says that the larger the component is, the easier it is to click on it. The area near to screen edges is the most valuable, because from mouse cursor’s point of view it is infinite. See Particletree for a great visualization of this concept.

I knew that intuitively. It seems that UI creators have taken it into account for years, putting tiny title and task bars on top or bottom and all the most important icons in corners. I haven’t realized how important it is until I started using a mediocre dual head configuration. After all, computer is a part of me and I don’t see it until something goes wrong.

Consider this setup:

Monitor configuration in Ubuntu

The larger display is a desktop monitor with higher screen resolution. The smaller one is my laptop. Since I am right-handed and I use laptop keyboard, it needs to be on the left. Apparently in Ubuntu the “left” monitor is always the one that gets the desktop, with task bar, shortcuts and so on. I don’t know how other operating systems deal with it, but in Ubuntu you always need to have a rectangular desktop. It means your mouse can move to the brown area, right above what you see as the top edge of the screen.

Now using a quick launch or tray on the smaller screen is quite an ordeal. Even if the displays were of the same size, or the OS dealt with it without the “brown area”, you still would have issues with window title bar icons or scrollbars.

With Fitt’s law at least I am able to name this issue.