Good vs. Better

Despite my desire for an Android phone, (puns are never quite as good, when intended) I actually quite appreciate the Apple iOS and its consumer based products. I am not the sort of consumer with an insatiable appetite for the latest piece of technology. This timing was not right for me to buy a replacement for our “go-anywhere” laptop. When the time comes to replace our current run-of-the-mill laptop, I would seriously consider an Apple iPad as a worthy replacement. Of course, new technology will come along before then, so it is far from a guarantee. But, it is hard to see any other manufacturer making the concerted effort to produce a slicker device in the category.

Apple advertising pitches the iPad as a revolution. The revolutionary part is not the form-factor, nor the hardware, but rather the care-factor that went in to developing the device. Prior to this device, using a computer was akin to travelling to a foreign country where the residents spoke a foreign language. Sure, you could get around but it was a slightly difficult experience. If you went to the trouble of learning the environment/language, you got more out of the experience. The iPad was more like travelling to a neighbouring country that speaks the same language. The learning curve is almost non-existent.

This salt-pan-like learning curve enables people to feel an immediate mastery of their environment. It is empowering, which in turn leads to favourable experiences. One of the aspects I admire about the iPad is the quality of the default applications on it. Too often in the computing industry, the term “quality” is approximated to “lack of defects”. Quality should extend to usability and fitness of purpose.

The derogatory term “gold-plating” is levelled at some developers. For those unfamiliar with the concept, it basically suggests that a developer spends too much time perfecting some piece of code. After all “The perfect is the enemy of the good”.  The longer your software takes to develop, the more funds it requires. Prior to the software generating income, this is a financial burden. Therefore, it is important to avoid “gold-plating” – especially for “version 1” programs, but avoiding gold-plating is not an excuse to turn in poor work.
Apple have shown that going to the extra effort to produce good quality software can be financially rewarding. If people like your product enough to pay for it, then making software that more people like has an obvious incentive. If you work in a large corporate environment, turning out systems for internal use, the benefit is not as immediately obvious. If you think about the cost to your business in terms of lost productivity and training programs, you can start to appreciate that easier user interfaces save money, even if they do not generate it.
Making better software is hard work. A lot of effort has been expended in terms of producing systems that lead to less defective software. Revision Control Systems / Unit testing frameworks / Continuous Build tools / Static Code Analysis tools and more all aim to reduce software bugs. Can you name one automated tool that provides any support for developing better User Interfaces? I suspect a lack of these tools is due to the required level of intelligence needed to produce meaningful analysis of a user interface. Writing software that analyses UI suggests that the software understands what the UI is. I am no expert in the field of artificial intelligence, but I would suggest we are not quite at that level yet!
Having decided that human intelligence is needed to design User Interfaces does not mean that automated tools cannot assist. The “usability” of clickable targets are affected by things such as their size and location. The usefulness of text is reduced by overall length (Oh the irony in this blog post!) Modal dialogues provide “speed-bumps” to the user’s “work-flow”. Such aspects are quantifiable. Maybe such tools that measure such things already exist, but they certainly do not attract the attention of the programming masses.

Apple is leading the way in terms of “user-focused” software and there is nothing wrong with having a market leader that is doing a “good job”. Here is hoping that others will help raise the overall standard further by continuing to compete with Apple’s products!