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A salesman friend of mine once smilingly opined that "There's a butt for
every saddle", and I've discovered over the years that he was right.
However...when a better saddle comes along, the saddlemaker had better take
note. Just because he can still sell saddles doesn't mean he isn't losing
ground. Any company relying so extensively on one developer is teetering on
the edge of fatality. Even if the guy is brilliant, the situation is
inherently unstable. I hope that company is developing newer products so
they're not held over the proverbial barrel.
A usability firm doesn't have to understand the product as well as the
designers do. Neither does the end user. Put a typical user in a rough
approximation of a real situation and then sit and watch him work. It's
human-computer interaction that's being tested, not the software. The human
is the important part.
In my decades in business and industry (and part of it installing,
designing, and troubleshooting control systems) I've seen many such products
that follow the well-trodden path. The initial product satisfies a need and
sells well. The saddlemaker is pleased. For example, I used to work with a
small company's PLCs that programmed exclusively in Boolean with a click-on
interface programming device. They were super units and never gave us any
problem. But it took a guy to program it who knew Boolean. Not a tough thing
to learn, but most of us were trained, not in Boolean, but in relay logic
symbology. When the next "shoebox" came out with relay logic syntax instead
of Boolean, the older units, despite their obvious value, stopped coming in
the door. That saddlemaker was suddenly unhappy.
If the company you cite has any hopes for a lengthy existence, they're well
advised to hire four or five adequate saddlemakers and let the one superstar
go. Or promote him behind a desk. Companies based on superstars don't last
very long unless they cross the chasm to a more process-based model, or
unless they're in such a niche market that no other saddlemaker bothers to
set up shop nearby. In the case you talk about, let's postulate that high
turnover in industry creates an inchoate need for an easy-to-use interface.
Now it may be worth a customer's while to give up some whizbang
functionality to gain a short learning curve. Now there's a real race. I've
seen it happen, and I'm sure you have too. I saw it happen in CNC machine
tool interfaces. The old Fanuc controllers had kludgy interfaces that took a
CNC programmer to love. The new ones have graphic paths. What a nice
upgrade. Fanuc has always had great technology, but they weren't satisfied
with that. Neither is any other long-term company.
I think it might be worth this company's while to start putting a better
face on the software, if only so marketing can trumpet "new and improved".
Sitting on one's laurels is a sure way to make them wilt.
And as to Microsoft...as I said in my message before this one, MS returned
to the drawing board after that revelation. MS, too, resisted doing user
testing, but after a few of the debacles I described, that attitude changed.
The original Windows interface went through a drastic redesign, and
continues to undergo testing today. Have you seen Office 2000? It has those
little smart menus that expand and contract. They annoy me, but according to
MS's research, their test subjects liked and used them.
This points out the need for continual testing to keep up with users'
preferences. Nobody's educated guesses work every time, and they can become
dated with appalling rapidity. My point isn't that guesses work. It's that
they don't work often enough, and, further, that you won't KNOW if they
work. If you're in an industrial situation, ask any engineer if he designs
industrial controls without a strong feedback loop. Today there's hardly a
designer anywhere who'd design anything for industry without such loops.
Moreover, no engineer or designer anywhere would put his butt on the line
without having tested the product to see if it does what he says it does.
But the doc...why that's a different story, right?
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