Tuesday, September 26, 2006

Software Should Just Work

My life revolves around the computer. I use lots of software - LOTS. I'm at the computer waaaaayyyyyy too much (just ask my family). Now, I'm not the world's most prolific computer user ever invented, but I'm in the top 50% of people that actually read documentation and actually try things on my own before pushing the big "panic" button and go running to tech support.

Apparently, I'm also in the minority of people that can actually check email, setup a new email account, use formulas in Excel, use styles in Word, and surf in multi-tabbed browsers. Each one of these skills I've learned either on my own, through decent documentation, or by the school of hard knocks. And yet, I use maybe 1-10% of each program's true features.

Why is that?

The reason is that today's software is so damn complicated.

Every program tries to win the feature war and be "everything to everyone." It's just ridiculous. Software is meant to help automate a process - usually a process that would suck without automation: word processing (remember the IBM Selectric?), spreadsheets (remember paper?), web browsing (remember going to the library and reading books?), email (remember licking envelopes and things called "stamps"?).

Do we need to go 8 dialogs deep to set up security settings? Is there a burning need to have a drop down menu of 9 different "Format" options for styles? Since when did creating a website require that we have 50,000 floating palettes of "helpful information at our fingertips." I don't have that many fingers, I'm getting old, and my eyes cross reading 8pt or trying to click one of 200 buttons that are 5 pixels by 5 pixels each. I mean, really!

I'm not saying that all software blows. There are very useful programs out there that are truly innovative and do what they say (like Servoy!) - but there are others that are just so difficult to use - that I'm convinced that no one has actually used the crap in "real life" before they got the bright idea to ship it.

Do engineers actually use the software they write? Do marketing pukes who put the "check mark" features on the box - actually USE the software and try to do the things they say it will do? Do salespeople actually use their own platform/software to try to get stuff done?

In 99.999% of cases - I'd say it's a resounding "Hell NO!"

The engineers sit around thinking up "great ideas" utilizing the latest technologies but then they implement it in such a way that only engineers can use it.

The marketing stooges read 5 web sites and 5 magazines and then run down to the engineers and say "Do we have (your buzz word here) in the new version??" Then they proceed to wine, bitch, moan and behave like 5 year olds until they get marketing copy on the box that is a laundry list of de jour "must have" features. The only problem is - that in 95% of the cases the reality doesn't live up to the hype. Either the feature is too hard to understand, or called with such arcane commands or buried 7 dialogs deep - that it's impossible for the user to actually use the feature.

The sales folks (in most cases) wouldn't ever actually use the software they're selling. They really don't know anything about the software except what Larry, Schemp and Moe have lead them to believe the software will do. Whether or not the software actually DOES a particular thing - doesn't really matter

- EXCEPT to the person buying it.

Before I get too much hate mail, let me say that I realize that a lot of computer users are "documentationally challenged", often can't chew gum and walk at the same time, and if a single click doesn't work - will try to click 150,000 times - just to be sure (you know who you are).

Look, the bottom line is - software should correctly solve a real problem. And it should work. And it should be appropriate for the targed user. If you're selling software for novices - but don't want to piss off "power" users - have a "dumbass mode" so people just starting out can make it work. On the other hand, if you have a tool that is meant for developers - don't "dumb it down" for the occasional novice user. Developers want developer-grade software.

And no matter what - software should just work.

Thought For Today: May God grant me the grace to practice what I preach...
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