Desert of My Real Life

{November 13, 2011}   Software Development and the User

I’ve been thinking about software usability a lot lately, mostly because I encounter so much software that isn’t particularly usable. There are two pieces of software that I use a lot right now which drive me crazy for their lack of usability. And yet, I still use them. Perhaps that’s why the usability doesn’t improve. Anyway, here are some thoughts.

The software development company that I worked for right out of college was The Geary Corporation, founded by Dave Geary in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. It doesn’t exist anymore because Dave died of MS and not too long after, his family sold it to Keane, Inc. But while it was around, Geary was an awesome company to work for and one of the things that distinguished it from other companies at the time (and apparently, companies now) was its focus on the user. We did a lot of development for Fortune 500 companies, which have a lot of middle management type people. Dave would not deal with those folks as we developed our software and this is a lesson I learned well. He would make the contract with the folks at the top of the decision chain and then he would go straight to the users. We might deal some with the users’ direct supervisor but all decisions about how the software needed to work were passed by the users on the front line, tested by them and approved by them. I learned this lesson so well that it is a central tenant of the software engineering textbook that I co-wrote.

I think about this a lot when I’m using Facebook. It’s a great tool for social networking but as time has gone on, I think the folks at Facebook have forgotten the user. The latest example of this is their recent upgrade of the Newsfeed so that it is no longer presented chronologically. Instead, Facebook decides what to show you. The Facebook site explains that this is for people who don’t visit Facebook very often and so Facebook tries to predict what will be most interesting so they don’t have to wade through a lot of minutia. That’s fine but did Facebook test this out with folks who use Facebook every day or multiple times a day? Given the subsequent uproar, I would guess not. To their credit, Facebook recently announced that they’ll be rolling out another update to give users an option concerning how they want their Newsfeed to appear. I keep using Facebook because the advantages outweigh the disadvantages (so far) but I have installed a cool app that gives me more control over my experience with the site. The app is called Social Fixer (used to be Better Facebook) and although it doesn’t work perfectly, given that it’s created by one guy in his living room, it’s awesome.

The other piece of software that is giving me fits is the tool that we use at PSU to search for courses. It’s always been ugly and clunky and not easy to understand but we have such a shortage of IT folks to help fix these things that I’ve never officially complained about it. We recently decided to stop printing a paper list of our courses which forces everyone to use this search tool. And so someone recently decided to upgrade the tool. To do the same search now requires more clicks and more scrolling than before. That’s a sign to me that whoever did the upgrade didn’t talk to faculty about how they use it. I suspect that they also didn’t talk to students. What a horribly inefficient use of time–why would you spend time upgrading a tool so that the result is less usable? If someone had come to talk to me for ten minutes, I would have explained, for example, that searching for courses by department is not an “advanced” use of the software and so I don’t want to have to click an extra time to get to that option.

None of this probably seems like a huge deal. But when you think of the amount of time we spend developing software and then using that software, it seems crazy to me that we would not take a few minutes early on to get user input as to how the tool can be most efficient and effective.

A student from my Creating Games class came to my office today to talk about the keynote speech from a conference he had recently attended.  The speaker was lamenting the fact that kindergarten has become increasingly focused on “preparing children for first grade” rather than socialization through play activities.  Because we talk a lot about play and its importance in life (even adult life), he wanted to know what I thought about this.

We had a great conversation and in the middle of it, I had an epiphany that many of our society’s ills stem from the very philosophy that encourages (or even requires) kindergarten classrooms to be structured around preparation for first grade.  I think the philosophy comes from capitalistic tendencies to focus on “efficiency,” “productivity,” and “progress,” all of which are defined in a very narrow sense.  And the more I think about this, the more I see it everywhere in our society.

My original thought was that we are forgetting the importance of play because we are so focused on short-term, immediate, measurable outcomes.  We have few resources and so we need to use them efficiently in order to make progress toward some short-term goal.  Any “unproductive” use of resources is discouraged as wasteful.  That is, if we can’t see the immediate consequence of the use of those resources, the resources have been wasted.  So children engaging in unstructured, “unproductive” play in kindergarten is wasteful because they aren’t learning to read, something they must know how to do when they enter first grade.  We need to test our students regularly (using standardized tests) to measure their “progress” and if they aren’t all making the same “progress,” someone must be punished (with loss of funding or firing). So we eliminate art programs and physical education and other extra subjects so we can focus our resources on getting students to perform well on our measurement tools.

As I thought more about this, I started to see this idea everywhere. Because money is the only measurement tool that matters for the stock market, if a company is not making adequate “progress” (which means increasing profits every quarter–profits which stay the same are not “progressing”), it will be punished by shareholders leaving them (well, maybe not in this particular economic climate). So companies engage in practices which make (or save) money in the short-term but which might not make sense if we had a longer view.  And mathematicians and fund managers design financial products that will increase in profits every quarter. If we had a longer view, we would recognize the risk of these products and wouldn’t allow them to take down our entire economy with their collapse. We won’t fund basic research and development because it isn’t immediately clear what the benefits are. And so we won’t learn more about how the universe and the world works just for the sake of learning those things today but which tomorrow might lead to amazing technological advances. I could go on and on.

This kind of thinking is the root of many of our societal problems. Kids engaging in unstructured, unsupervised play is important to teach them skills that can’t be easily measured and whose benefits may not be visible for years. They will learn to entertain themselves. They will learn to focus on an activity for more than a half hour at a time. They will use their imaginations. They will learn to navigate the world on their own, without some external force guiding them to the next “correct” step. These things may take years to learn and are definitely not easily measured. But it seems to me that those are not valid reasons to give up on them. Yet, I think we have largely given up on them. Just as we’ve given up on many of the things in my list above.

I realize I probably sound like a curmudgeon longing for “the good old days.” Or that I think we shouldn’t measure anything in the short-term. But that isn’t my point at all. My point is simply that our societal focus on ONLY measurable, short-term outcomes has consequences. And I would argue that those consequences are mostly bad. They lead to less creativity and fewer workers prepared to adapt to the ever-changing world and economic collapses and fewer technological advances and and and. Focusing on these other things, these things we can’t measure or see the results of immediately, is risky. We might “waste” some resources. But sometimes, what seems like a “waste” today turns out to be life-changing, society-changing, at a point in the unknowable future. And the really sad thing is that if we don’t invest in these “wastes,” we’ll never even know what we might be missing.

et cetera