15 Februar 2010

You are not thy user

I have just finished reading Dave S. Platt’s book “Why Software SUCKS”, and it was a lot of fun. I like his polemic and exaggerated way to make his point. And I strongly believe that at its heart he is absolutely right in his findings.

The believe of programmers, that the user of a program is like him, causes much if not all of the trouble with the usability of programs nowadays. “You are not your user” says Platt. And if a programmer thinks “If I design a user interface that I like, the users will love it.” Dave says “Wrong!”. This is not new knowledge, in Germany we know it as “Der Trugschluß der egozentrischen Intuition”, but no one before described it in such a catchy way.

But I don’t like the oversimplification that always the programmer is the bad guy. In my experience the same amount of damage to usability is done by every person in the development chain, that means QA people, project managers, sales people, directors and the people responsible for buying.

Think of Joe Programmer, who actually knows something about user interface design and has studied it for several years. He has seen the actual users in person and at work and knows the problem thy want to solve. He has designed a beautiful user interface and now his boss comes in, demanding a short review. “I don’t like that. My favorite GeekyApp does it like this, I like it and therefore it must be liked by the customer. Please change your software so that it does work like my beloved GeekyApp.” Ouch. Next comes the QA guy: “I need to test the performance of your app and I don’t like to manually create 1000th entries of test data, could you please add some batch generator to your UI, it would help me doing my job faster!” Argh, no user will ever do what you poor QA guy have to do. Now the sales people cry: “I need more colors and more animations. Otherwise I can’t sell it!” Sigh. Then the project manager declares: “I need a quick way to discover what is going on in the customers installation, please give me more analysis features.” Last but not least, even the people who are responsible for buying the software force him to cripple the user experience because the prefer to buy what they like and not what their users like. Poor users, no wonder why so many software sucks.

My tip for Joe Programmer: Not only the final user has needs, everyone in the chain has his own needs. You cannot ignore them but must find a way to satisfy them adequately. You can give QA an automation api without compromising the user interface. You can build a system diagnosis view, that the normal user never will see. You can argue with sales and your boss (point them to Platt’s book). Offer some “baffle” mode for presentations and to convince the buying agent. This is a lot of work but by reading “Why Software SUCKS” you have a chance to convince the other people that they are also not like your users. At least it helps to detect the trap before falling into it.