This interview with Service Virtualization appeared in January 2015. Initially when George Lawton approached me I wasn’t enthusiastic. I didn’t think I would have much to say. However, the questions set me thinking, and I felt they were relevant to my experience so I was happy to take part. It gave me something to do while I was waiting to fly back from EuroSTAR in Dublin!
How does usability relate to the notion of the purpose of a software project?
When I started in IT over 30 years ago I never heard the word usability. It was “user friendliness”, but that was just a nice thing to have. It was nice if your manager was friendly, but that was incidental to whether he was actually good at the job. Likewise, user friendliness was incidental. If everything else was ok then you could worry about that, but no-one was going to spend time or money, or sacrifice any functionality just to make the application user friendly. And what did “user friendly” mean anyway. “Who knows? Who cares? We’ve got serious work do do. Forget about that touchy feely stuff.”
The purpose of software development was to save money by automating clerical routines. Any online part of the system was a mildly anomalous relic of the past. It was just a way of getting the data into the system so the real work could be done. Ok, that’s an over-simplification, but I think there’s enough truth in it to illustrate why developers just didn’t much care about the users and their experience. Development moved on from that to changing the business, rather than merely changing the business’s bureaucracy, but it took a long time for these attitudes to shift.
The internet revolution turned everything upside down. Users are no longer employees who have to put up with whatever they’re given. They are more likely to be customers. They are ruthless and rightly so. Is your website confusing? Too slow to load? Your customers have gone to your rivals before you’ve even got anywhere near their credit card number.
The lesson that’s been getting hammered into the heads of software engineers over the last decade or so is that usability isn’t an extra. I hate the way that we traditionally called it a “non-functional requirement”, or one of the “quality criteria”. Usability is so important and integral to every product that telling developers that they’ve got to remember it is like telling drivers they’ve got to remember to use the steering wheel and the brakes. If they’re not doing these things as a matter of course they shouldn’t be allowed out in public. Usability has to be designed in from the very start. It can’t be considered separately.
What are the main problems in specifying for and designing for software usability?
Well, who’s using the application? Where are they? What is the platform? What else are they doing? Why are they using the application? Do they have an alternative to using your application, and if so, how do you keep them with yours? All these things can affect decisions you take that are going to have a massive impact on usability.
It’s payback time for software engineering. In the olden days it would have been easy to answer these questions, but we didn’t care. Now we have to care, and it’s all got horribly difficult.
These questions require serious research plus the experience and nous to make sound judgements with imperfect evidence.
In what ways do organisations lose track of the usability across the software development lifecycle?
I’ve already hinted at a major reason. Treating usability as a non-functional requirement or quality criterion is the wrong approach. That segregates the issue. It’s treated as being like the other quality criteria, the “…ities” like security, maintainability, portability, reliability. It creates the delusion that the core function is of primary importance and the other criteria can be tackled separately, even bolted on afterwards.
Lewis & Rieman came out with a great phrase fully 20 years ago to describe that mindset. They called it the peanut butter theory of usability. You built the application, and then at the end you smeared a nice interface over the top, like a layer of peanut butter (PDF, opens in new tab).
“Usability is seen as a spread that can be smeared over any design, however dreadful, with good results if the spread is thick enough. If the underlying functionality is confusing, then spread a graphical user interface on it. … If the user interface still has some problems, smear some manuals over it. If the manuals are still deficient, smear on some training which you force users to take.”
Of course they were talking specifically about the idea that usability was a matter of getting the interface right, and that it could be developed separately from the main application. However, this was an incredibly damaging fallacy amongst usability specialists in the 80s and 90s. There was a huge effort to try to justify this idea by experts like Hartson & Hix, Edmonds, and Green. Perhaps the arrival of Object Oriented technology contributed towards the confusion. A low level of coupling so that different parts of the system are independent of each other is a good thing. I wonder if that lured usability professionals into believing what they wanted to believe, that they could be independent from the grubby developers.
Usability professionals tried to persuaded themselves that they could operate a separate development lifecycle that would liberate them from the constraints and compromises that would be inevitable if they were fully integrated into development projects. The fallacy was flawed conceptually and architecturally. However, it was also a politically disastrous approach. The usability people made themselves even less visible, and were ignored at a time when they really needed to be getting more involved at the heart of the development process.
As I’ve explained, the developers were only too happy to ignore the usability people. They were following methods and lifecycles that couldn’t easily accommodate usability.
How can organisations incorporate the idea of usability engineering into the software development and testing process?
There aren’t any right answers, certainly none that will guarantee success. However, there are plenty of wrong answers. Historically in software development we’ve kidded ourselves thinking that the next fad, whether Structured Methods, Agile, CMMi or whatever, will transform us into rigorous, respected professionals who can craft high quality applications. Now some (like Structured Methods) suck, while others (like Agile) are far more positive, but the uncomfortable truth is that it’s all hard and the most important thing is our attitude. We have to acknowledge that development is inherently very difficult. Providing good UX is even harder and it’s not going to happen organically as a by-product of some over-arching transformation of the way we develop. We have to consciously work at it.
Whatever the answer is for any particular organisation it has to incorporate UX at the very heart of the process, from the start. Iteration and prototyping are both crucial. One of the few fundamental truths of development is that users can’t know what they want and like till they’ve seen what is possible and what might be provided.
Even before the first build there should have been some attempt to understand the users and how they might be using the proposed product. There should be walkthroughs of the proposed design. It’s important to get UX professionals involved, if at all possible. I think developers have advanced to the point that they are less likely to get it horribly wrong, but actually getting it right, and delivering good UX is asking too much. For that I think you need the professionals.
I do think that Agile is much better suited to producing good UX than traditional methods, but there are still dangers. A big one is that many Agile developers are understandably sceptical about anything that smells of Big Up-Front Analysis and Design. It’s possible to strike a balance and learn about your users and their needs without committing to detailed functional requirements and design.
How can usability relate to the notion of testable hypothesis that can lead to better software?
Usability and testability go together naturally. They’re also consistent with good development practice. I’ve worked on, or closely observed, many applications where the design had been fixed and the build had been completed before anyone realised that there were serious usability problems, or that it would be extremely difficult to detect and isolate defects, or that there would be serious performance issues arising from the architectural choices that had been made.
We need to learn from work that’s been done with complexity theory and organisation theory. Developing software is mostly a complex activity, in the sense that there are rarely predictable causes and effects. Good outcomes emerge from trialling possible solutions. These possibilities aren’t just guesswork. They’re based on experience, skill, knowledge of the users. But that initial knowledge can’t tell you the solution, because trying different options changes your understanding of the problem. Indeed it changes the problem. The trials give you more knowledge about what will work. So you have to create further opportunities that will allow you to exploit that knowledge. It’s a delusion that you can get it right first time just by running through a sequential process. It would help if people thought of good software as being grown rather than built.