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Do Computers Still Stink?

November 8, 2004

Synopsis:It's been 7 years since I wrote Computers Stink, a 150-page phillipic against the industry. I've improved the free 150-page PDF of the book by adding bookmarks and along the way I asked myself, "Has the industry conquered its deamons in 7 years?" Here are my observations.

"Most Programs Are Only Half Finished"

This is not quite as bad a problem. So many products are in fiercely competittive markets that they often 'close the loop' on on end-to-end user needs that the functionality is there. Wizards in many programs are a big part of the solution.

"There Are Very Few User Interface Designers"

Again, probably lots of progress. In California and probably Washington state, there are several subcategories of UI role: graphics, interaction, info architecture, usability analyst, interface designer, user experience manager.

"Most Development Starts Over Again from the Beginning'

Still a near disaster. This is epidemic in the industry. Usability and pre-built artifacts are still not built into high-school programming, project docs, flowcharts of the business logic in general, project behavior, and most importantly of all: the tools.

"Use Perfectly Accurate Words"

This only floats to the top because of an experience while preparing this article. While trying to upload the new PDF, a program reported "Directory or path not found," when in fact it was because the PDF was open in another program. Now a technologist might say this was an error-trapping problem... sure. But to users, this is an accuracy problem. If it accurately trapped the specific level of incident, the user would have a fighting chance. It's only with huge amounts of experience that I could translate one error to another.

"Always Show the Level at Which Options Are Invoked"

Still a problem in lots of programs, but better in many programs.

"Use Dynamic Communication, Not Dynamic Menus and Dialogs"

I still think too many programs hide or show features based on circumstance (context). Users would be better served by keeping the appearance the same, and providing messages that desribe the necessary context... or better yet change the context accordingly.

"Always Provide Visual Cues"

Still a problem. Web browsers in particular don't have good enough feedback for most users. And many many programs mistakenly use subtle messaging such as the status bar when they should be using for in-your-face messages when the user temporarily has no control.

"Circular References, Valueless Help"

It was only yesterday that Linksys's help told me that activating DHCP security activates DHCP security.

Bottom line?

We've gotten incredible gains, and if you're not having a bad day, usability is just "sour grapes." If you've spent all day trying to debug a 5-minute-job, we've got a long way to go.

"My interest in usability arose from the pain and tears of patching the wounds of suffering interface designs with the inadequate bandages of help files and user guides." — Daniel Cohen

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