I’m in the process of reading Alan Cooper’s delightful book The Inmates Are Running the Asylum. Cooper discusses the reason computer software is often so difficult to use. His main thesis: when programmers design software, they do it in a way that fits how the computer operates, not necessarily how a human being operates. It makes sense to them, but not to the average end user. This makes clear the need for so-called interaction design, as opposed to interface design. In order to be truly effective, this must be done by dedicated interaction designers, not by the programmers. The reason for this lies in the simple difference of how programmers think about problems and how normal people think about things. (Being a programmer myself, I can tell you that programmers really do have a different way of seeing the world. That view often doesn’t mesh with how normal people see the world.)
Cooper’s book dates from 1999. Things have changed in the realm of software interaction design since then. But he notes trends of the day that are still obvious in current software development. In chapter 5, for example, he discusses the concept of customer loyalty. He argues that Microsoft’s Bill Gates had tremendous business prowess and, as such, was able to get his company’s products to sell, imperfect or unpleasant to use as they may have been. People bought his things because they provided solutions for the problems they faced. They were driven by “economic necessity,” as Cooper puts it (p. 75). But as soon as something better comes along, the customers’ disloyalty will become apparent. They will be willing to switch to those better products without suffering withdrawl from their emotional attachment to Microsoft. Apple, on the other hand, has always had an eye for design. Their products were and still are attractive, and Apple has an incredibly loyal consumer base. Just think: how many people do you know who sport an article of clothing, bumper sticker, mug, or other object advertising Apple to the world? And how many people have you seen with similar products from Microsoft?
I believe that companies like Apple and Google have done much to drive innovation in the field of interaction design. Just think of the iPhone. How many smart phones have been developed in the last two years that look or act like the iPhone? A staggering number. But who thought of having such an intuitive, tactile touch screen before Apple did? And what mainstream email program is there that groups communications into threads besides Gmail? (If there really is one, please correct me.)
It’s issues like these that Cooper addresses in his book. I would highly recommend it to anyone desiring to improve the usability of their software. His current consulting company also has a blog discussing these topics.