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.