Hard to Revise a UI?

Subject: Hard to Revise a UI?
From: Geoff Hart <ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca>
To: TECHWR-L <techwr-l -at- lists -dot- techwr-l -dot- com>, Nancy Allison <maker -at- verizon -dot- net>
Date: Mon, 09 Oct 2006 15:58:59 -0400

Nancy Allison wonders: <<I'd like to be able to explain why it's a bad idea for a company to develop a product's functions first, before thinking about the user interface (or documentation).>>

Here's an example even an engineer could understand. <gdr> "So you're building a car. You don't know what it'll look like, but you've got a killer engine designer, the world's greatest radio designer, a guy who eats sheet metal for breakfast, and so on. You send them off to design an engine, a radio, and the skin of the car without any thought about how the parts are going to fit together, and hope the result will fit into something recognizable as a modern car, right? No? Let me guess... you start with a clear idea of how the car is going to work, then figure out how those functions determine the type of engine, radio, and frame you'll need, then you fit all this together, and revise it if necessary to ensure it fits. So why can't you do that with software?"

Or try the architecture metaphor: "OK, here's the deal. I want you to build me a house. Head over to the local [name of big-box hardware store] and buy everything you need, then build me my house. What do you mean 'I want a blueprint'? Blueprints are for architects. You're a professional. You don't need no steenken' blueprints!"

<Fe>By the evidence, modern software development managers don't get it, so don't waste your time explaining it to them. Stick to the engineers... they know how the world works.</Fe>

<<I know of a startup where the developers have created very powerful functions, with the strangest user interface you have ever seen. It is just plain bizarre. Functions have strange names; tools are scattered around the interface in no discernible order; different buttons lead to confusingly similar drop-down lists and directories, with no clear indication of what you can or can't do in each area. It's a geek's paradise, and a total mess. The lead developer said to me, "Oh, we'll fix the UI later.">>

Strictly speaking--and I hate to admit it--they're right, at least in part. The thing about modern software design is that the hard part is the plumbing--the code that actually does the work. Connecting the plumbing together to create an interface is trivial by comparison-- though designing the interface is considerably harder. Of course, it's smarter to start with your car design or house blueprint first, but unlike physical products, software is infinitely malleable: it's much easier to put together a working interface now than at any previous time in programming history.

<<I have heard that it may not be possible to completely redo a UI once the software architecture is in place.>>

It's certainly possible to design a software architecture that imposes a certain interface, but that's not inevitable. Software that is coded in intelligently designed modules can be reconfigured relatively easily: the interface provides access to the modules, but is separate from the modules. The problem comes in the workflow: if the natural interface for the way people would work suggests a certain workflow, this imposes certain constraints on the software plumbing that will implement that workflow. So you may need to revise some of the plumbing, and that's painful and difficult... just as it would be if you decided to move your bathroom from the basement to the attic after construction of the house is already complete.

Alan Cooper has written elegantly about these issues for many years (most notably, in _About Face 2.0_), and since he has serious street cred in the programming community, he's a good name to drop.

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Geoff Hart ghart -at- videotron -dot- ca

(try geoffhart -at- mac -dot- com if you don't get a reply)


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Hard to Revise a UI: From: Nancy Allison

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