March 18, 2005

After all these years, user interfaces have long way to go

A few years ago I was having lunch with Tim O?Reilly, the founder of the publishing company of the same last name. The geeks among you will know the publisher I?m talking about.

The company?s book covers often have old etchings of animals: a llama on the cover of ?Learning Perl,? a rhino on the cover of ?JavaScript: The Definitive Guide,? a koala on the front of ?XML and XHTML: The Definitive Guide,? and so on. A well-known publisher in the tech world, O?Reilly books are found on bookshelves throughout geekdom.

During lunch I proposed a book to Tim: I wanted to write a book on user-interface design. It was a subject dear to my heart, having spent almost 20 years working with horrible software inflicted upon the world by uncaring software publishers. Over the last quarter of a century I have worked with hundreds of programs ? easily over 1,000, I?m sure, perhaps well above that. And while software is sometimes easy to use and ?elegant,? it?s more usually complicated and clumsy.
?Well,? said Tim, ?that?s not a book I think I?d want to do.?

I told him I thought the standard of user-interface design was appalling, I spoke of my years of experience with horrible software, and he didn?t disagree. But that wasn?t the point.
?I like to publish ?pain? books, and you?re talking about a ?guilt? book,? he stated. Tim previously has explained his concept of ham-sandwich books to me.

Sometimes it doesn?t matter what?s actually in the book, it will sell regardless; create a great cover, with a fantastic title, about a really hot subject, and wrap it around a ham sandwich, and it will still sell. So I realized I was about to hear another of his philosophies of publishing.
?Look,? he said, ?let?s imagine you?re a computer programmer, and you?ve just got a job in which you have to know Java. But you don?t know Java, or don?t know much. You?ve got a pain to deal with, and you need one of my Java books in order to remove the pain. My books are pain books ? they remove pain. But you?re talking about a guilt book, a book that removes guilt.

?The standard of user-interface design is very low, you?re right,? he went on. ?Programmers really should know more about it, and hell, they should feel guilty that their skills in this area are so low. But the fact is, nobody is applying any pain to them. Nobody is forcing them to learn more about user-interface design, there?s no threat to their job or livelihood if they don?t improve the usability of their software. That?s why nobody buys ?guilt? books.?

And so I never wrote my user-interface book. But that doesn?t stop me whining about user interfaces.

You?d think that by now, two decades into the personal-computer age, software publishers would have figured all this out. They would have learned several things. That good user interfaces really matter. That good-interface design makes it easier to use their software, which makes it easier to sell the software. It reduces the frustration level and increases the evangelism level. It reduces technical support, which reduces costs and increases profits.

I was using Nero this morning, a program used to burn CDs (among other things). Now, Nero is a very popular program. And many people like this program. It does do some cool things, but the fact is, the user interface is sloppy.

The program makes it hard to figure out how to do certain things, especially processes that are a little out of the ordinary. And the documentation, at least in the section I was forced to use, doesn?t help much.

As one user, who loves the program, conceded to me, ?It?s a great program … but I must admit it took me a while to learn how to use it.? That annoys me because it?s simply not necessary. I was left feeling very irritated with Nero, and unable to complete my task. Not the sort of feeling a software publisher should hope for in a user.

There?s no reason software can?t be created in a manner that makes it simple to use. The classic example I always use is QuickBooks.

OK, I haven?t worked with it in a couple of years. Perhaps they?ve seen the light, and now it?s the epitome of good design (though I doubt it). But it certainly wasn?t then. It was bug ridden, with all sorts of design problems.

A lot of people love this program, I?ll admit, but if you watch people use this program or watch them learn the program, it?s quite clear that it?s overly complicated. The strength of the program is that it has virtually no direct competitors. If you need the features that this program has, you have no other big-name, big-brand option at a comparable price.

After a quarter of a century working with computers, and more than 20 years working with PCs, I?m not terribly encouraged. Certainly user interfaces are much better than they were, but nowhere near as good as they could, or should, be.

The software business should feel guilty, but it really doesn?t. And even though the pain is there ? in the form of higher-than-necessary technical support costs ? the business really doesn?t seem to realize what?s causing the pain. So, here?s to another 25 years of mediocre software design.

Peter Kent is the author of ?Search Engine Optimization for Dummies? and many other computer- and Internet-related books. For more information, see www.iChannelServices.com.

A few years ago I was having lunch with Tim O?Reilly, the founder of the publishing company of the same last name. The geeks among you will know the publisher I?m talking about.

The company?s book covers often have old etchings of animals: a llama on the cover of ?Learning Perl,? a rhino on the cover of ?JavaScript: The Definitive Guide,? a koala on the front of ?XML and XHTML: The Definitive Guide,? and so on. A well-known publisher in the tech world, O?Reilly books are found on bookshelves throughout geekdom.

During lunch I proposed a book to Tim: I…

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