It’s all the Programmers Fault! A Post about Bad User Interfaces and How to Avoid Them.

Programmers to Blame for Hard To Use Software

In one of the least informed articles of our young year, the author of the linked article asserts that programmers are to blame for software that is “hard to use”.  It starts out finding a problem with the following:

“One of his peeves is when a text-editing program like Microsoft Word asks users if they want to save their work before they close their document.

That question makes little sense to computer novices accustomed to working with typewriters or pen and paper, he said. For them, a clearer question would be: "Throw away everything you’ve just done?"“

Lets see.  First of all, how many computer novices are accustomed to working with typewriters these days, or for that matter, pen and paper, for composing documents?  When is the last time you have ever even seen a typewriter.  And even if the message is bad, and should be replaced with “Throw away everything you’ve just done?”, I can assure you that the feature probably originated from a user who, when using MS Word 0.9 Beta, closed a word document that had 20 pages of unsaved work, lost it, and in an irate voice, yelled “give me a @#$(@ prompt before I lose all my work, you ignorant programmer!”. 

As an aside, even the suggested rephrasing of the message – “Throw away everything you’ve just done” – is wrong, because if you have been using more than one app, closing the app would NOT throw away everything you have just done – only that which you have done with that particular app.

The truth of the matter is this.  Most user interface of most programs is designed by the project sponsor, or other non-programmer, not from the person who actually programs them.  How many times as a programmer been given free rein to just throw a UI together, and not have it vetted by the program sponsor, the power user who will do UAT, or some person in the chain of command.  Maybe I’ve been living on planet X, but in every piece of software I have ever written the UI is where the most user feedback got incorporated, given it is the most obvious visible manifestation of the software.  More often than not – too much dickering occurs over the UI from the chain of command, since many of the issues turn out to be preference or fashion issues, not true usability ones.

The problem – is that most users are not experts in what makes a good UI.  There are ways to use fonts, colors, and graphics, to increase program usability.  There are ways to manage how tabbing and shortcuts work to enable heads down data entry people to use your application easily.  Magenic, recognizing this, employs consultants who specialize in taking ugly sponsor designed user interfaces and turning them into usable and intuitive user interfaces.  If more companies followed the lead of the companies that “get it”, and spend the extra money to hire usability experts – perhaps we would not see the aforementioned article once every 6 months.  That money has more ROI than almost anything else you can do on the project – as it assures that users will find the application easy enough to use – ideally – so easy that no training is required.  Money spent on the UI expert is a one time cost, money spent on trainers has to be re-spent every time you have new users on the application. 

If you are having the above problem with users complaining about hard to use software… put your money where your mouth is, and hire a UI expert, and let them do the UI design.  The UI expert can get what is important to the user, but then translate that into a intuitive and eminently usable UI.  And stop blaming the programmers for stuff they didn’t do, nor have any real control over.

It’s all the Programmers Fault! A Post about Bad User Interfaces and How to Avoid Them.

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