My blog pal, Mark Bernstein, has been thinking and writing about usability and style – words that pretty much encapsulate Mark himself, by the way – as applied to software. As usual, Mark puts up a compelling argument, and, as usual I’m not sure whether to agree or disagree. Or both. Or neither.

Mark’s final point:

We spend several days, at least, learning to operate a car. We spend longer, learning to operate the basics of algebra and calculus. We spend a few years achieving basic competence in fields like medicine, or gas fitting, or theatrical lighting. Why do we expect all our software to be mastered within an hour or two?

My masters research was into the accessibility of New Zealand government web sites. Accessibility is a subset (or a superset, depending on your viewpoint) of usability, and so Mark’s thoughts are of real interest to me.

I agree with his posit that why do we expect all our software to be mastered within an hour or two? I’m inclined to think that the best software – I’m thinking Photoshop, GIMP, and Excel in this instance – can produce results within an hour or two. But I’ve never yet met anyone who’s run out of Photoshop, GIMP, and Excel – pushed it beyond its limits. Maybe it can be done, in fact I’m sure it can, but I’ve never met anyone who has gone beyond the limits. In contrast, PowerPoint has very real limits, I myself have explored and pushed them until it broke. In these examples, the real difference between the software is not the usability, but in the customisability. If your want GIMP to do more, get out vi and write something new. I suspect if you’re at the edges of Excel or Photoshop vi is probably your weapon of choice there also.

I have used software with few visual bells and whistles but that just worked nicely and was a pleasure to use, no steep learning curve, and nothing getting in the way of just doing the task at hand. Appleworks on my old Apple IIe, Notetab, and Color Coder as examples. I don’t use appleworks anymore, but it still holds a seat near the fire in my heart. I’ve also used software that was visually beautiful – Bryce 5 as an example – but the intuitive interface just wasn’t quite as intuitive as I would’ve liked. Oh, and then there was Word Perfect 5.1. Informix. DBase IV. Interface – more or less – from the ascetic school of minimalist design.

The best design work I’ve seen in software is one that starts figuring you know a little. As you learn it forgets you know a little and starts to work on the principle you’re moving on. It holds while you learn, and moves on when you’re competent. If you’re a power user it works that way. A newbie is equally accommodated. I can only think of one software package that does that thing of taking you into its world (although I’m sure there’s others) and that’s Psygnosis’ Lemmings – that crazy addictive game from 1991. I had no idea there was a Lemmings fan club, including hacks to produce customised levels.

I guess for me the ideal software – indeed the ideal product design of any kind is one that can be learned very quickly. The razor blade. And then you can spend a lifetime mastering it. Avoid knicks. And worse.

There’s also a perspective I have heard ascribed to the Balinese – I’ve not been to Bali, so I can’t confirm this, but: We have no art, we just do everything as well as possible. Goodness know, there’s probably some poor Vietnamese person saying, “Damn, I wish I’d patented that!”

Would it kill the software producers and product designers to make things where form follows function? This aesthetic is as appropriate to software as it is to toothpicks. Software used to follow commands faithfully. It now asks “Are you sure?” It has ctrl-z. WYSIWYG. Unlike one of the databases I have to use in my job which sometimes wants me to ESCape and other times to F3, to achieve the same result, but it’s not interchangeable. Sometimes it’s one, other places it’s the other. Not really designed for automatic use. The screens have to be read to ensure you’re using the right command at the right place. Neither good form nor good function.

In the end, I don’t know whether to agree with Mark. I’m inclined to. We have had discussions most important to me – what colour it should be. You see, I don’t really care if it takes me a day to learn to use a new car (although that would annoy me) ultimately like Excel I’m only going to use about 10% of all the clip-ons I’ve paid for. What does matter to me is what the colour is. If it mostly works (and doesn’t work in a consistent manner and I can learn to adapt to the not work parts), and does no harm, then the colour is the primary issue for me – how does it look.

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