It’s a question that seems easy to answer on the surface. We make software to accomplish a certain task (for example, to allow people to communicate with each other in real time from thousands of miles away) or to help solve a certain problem (improve public health by providing more data for research). These are the simple answers. But if you think about how software fits into that bigger picture, the answer becomes much more complex.
One of my biggest gripes about many software programs is a lack of usability. In a classic case of being unable to see the forest for the trees, software companies and designers focus so hard on what the software needs to do or all of the extra features they could add in that they forget that software in and of itself does nothing: it’s the humans who are using the software to communicate or to apply data points to solve public health problems. A software platform can have all kinds of bells and whistles, have all kinds of gadgets and neat features built in. But if the human beings who are supposed to use it can’t use it? Well, how much good does it do?
A recent post on BoingBoing pointed out that national security could be improved by making cryptology and other security software programs easier to use. In the article, Sinclair Brody points out the seemingly obvious statement that so often eludes the tech world. If the software isn’t easy to use, people won’t use it, and if they don’t use it the software can’t protect them.
The focus of too many projects has long been on users who resemble the developers themselves. It is time to professionalize the practice of open-source development, recruit designers and usability researchers to the cause, and take a human-centered approach to software design.
— Sinclair Brody
It amazes me at times how little thought is put into the user experience of software. Part of this I feel stems from an arrogance within the tech sector; a feeling that if a user wants to use a product, they will figure out how to use it. If they don’t, then they aren’t smart enough to use the product in the first place. It’s completely backwards logic that misses the fact that the reason they are designing the software in the first place is for someone to use it…someone who may not have a choice and who doesn’t have the luxury of years of experience in the tech and programming sector.
Ironically, it’s the up and coming generation, the technology natives as they are often called, who are raising calls for better user experiences. The people who grew up with technology as a part of their lives are often the ones with the best barometers of user experience. They’ve seen the good, the bad and the ugly of software design, and once you’ve had a good user experience it becomes the bar by which all other technology is measured.
Thankfully, some companies are now starting to acknowledge the importance of user experiences, and have started incorporating human centered design into their builds. This should not be seen as a luxury; if companies want to compete in a world increasingly populated with technology natives, having good user-centered design is going to be a make-or-break.