May 23rd, 2006


why I hate computer software // ranting, not too techish

Appologies in advance if this gets terribly techy, I'm upset about a rather fundamental problem that exists across disciplines, but my examples will be from the computer industry simply because that's what I'm most familar with.

So, reading a review of the upcomming OS from Microsoft, they are discussing an interface issue that causes some problems. To quote the article:

In Beta 2, the elevation dialog doesn't just pop up; it switches Vista into what Microsoft calls "secure desktop" mode. The OS takes a bitmapped snapshot of currently displayed windows, grays them out, and overlays the elevation dialog box. The result is a rude interruption to whatever you may be doing. Microsoft representatives readily acknowledge that this experience is problematic for users, and say the company is continuing to work both within the OS and with third-party software vendors to reduce the frequency of these interruptions.

So, let me get this straight, when this particular alert is triggered, no matter if it is triggered by a program you are actively working on or if it is something that was running in the background, it stops everything you are doing and forces you to respond to this alert message before letting you get on with your work. It doesn't matter that you had an amazing insight to a problem you had been working on for weeks and were desperately trying to type it up in a document before you lost your concentration, the system is going to force you to stop thinking about whatever it was and insist that you now think about something entirely unrelated before you can continue with your life.

This is BY DESIGN! They purposefully intend for this to be how it is. What's more, they admit that it is a problem for users and decreases the usability of the system. Rather than, say, fix the problem, they instead think the proper thing to do is try to work with various other entities to try and make sure the problem doesn't happen very much.

I read an article a while back (days? months? years? not sure) about what it means to be a good IT. Not much of it stuck with me, I'm not even sure what the source was, but one nugget of it that I have carried with me was something like this:

When the user says "this button causes a problem", an average IT asks "why does the user keep pressing the button?" where the good IT asks "why do we even have that button?"

The concept is simple: If you are developing a product and you know that a particular feature causes problems for your customers the appropriate response is to question the feature, not try and hide it under the rug. But no, that's not the american way! Our society is chock full of situations where something is just insanely problematic but rather than focus on how we can fix the problem everyone would rather just pretend there's nothing wrong while trying to make the problems crop up as rarely as possible. You want one? Look at your medicine cabinet. How many pills are there that treat symptoms rather than causes? Now, some of you will say zero, admittedly, but you have to agree that you are the exceptions (I like to think I surround myself with exceptional people). Most people, myself included, have at least one or two things there that are designed simply to make the sniffle go away rather than try and work on why I'm sniffling in the first place.

Sure, it's easier to treat symptoms. It's hard to treat causes. And I'm just as lazy as the next person (in fact, likely more so). But there has to come a point where we can all stand up and admit that this is not a "good thing". I sometimes forgo the dayQuil and instead take a little while to eat a better breakfast. But in this situation, where the company is desginging the product and they are in 100% controll of it. They can change it however they want. Why not take the time to fix the problem instead of trying to hide it? Shit, they've already delayed the product over two years, another 6 months wouldn't kill anyone. And given the PR nightmare that is Microsoft these days it might behoove them to take a little time to try and not piss people off quite so much.

But no. That's not the way corporations work. Most certainly not this one. When people had trouble using the "start button", instead of getting rid of it they added an annoying little pop-up telling people to click there. Sure, people were more sucessfull in using Windows now, but not because it had gotten any easier. Success in using something does not mean it is easy to use. It just means you stuck enough instructions on it that people finally figured the damn thing out.

le'sigh. This is the part I hate about IT. it's not the "stupid users", because as far as I'm concerned they don't exist. It's the stupid software developers who insist on making the most boneheaded decisions regarding UI. My users are amazingly intelligent people. They are all highly capable, functional people. If all those crappy dumbass software developers would get a clue and make a UI that made sense, I'd be out of a job! When a piece of software comes here, and over a hundred people, each with advanced degrees in various fields, can't figure out how to use it, this means there is something wrong with the product -- not the users.

Why did they even decide to have this button in the first place, indeed!