Re: Question about Programmers and Usability

Subject: Re: Question about Programmers and Usability
From: "Marie C. Paretti" <mparetti -at- RRINC -dot- COM>
Date: Thu, 26 Feb 1998 09:53:25 -0500

At 08:42 PM 2/25/98 -0400, Suzanne wrote:
>WHY are programmers
>disinterested in usability? It seems to me that both tech writers and
>programmers do the same thing (more and more, with online help and
>web-based help, for example). Yet "we" spend all this time trying to
>figure out how to make things easier for the user, and complaining about
>how the programmers could care less. I can't figure it out. Why aren't they
>concerned with making software easy to use?

There have been several good responses so far, but I'm in the mood to add
my two sense, since I've worked with some programmers on user interface
design stuff. I think part of the problem is perspective -- programmers,
at least in the company I work for, are concerned with creating functional,
elegant, and effecient solutions. They want the code to do what it does
quickly and effectively, without crashing, without using up too much
virtual memory, without shutting down the network, etc. This means they
see the thing from the inside and know what needs to happen to make it all
function. In that sense, they are concerned with making the software
*work* easily and smoothly.

That, of course, is what they should know, but that is often *not* the view
that leads to an effective user interface, since sometimes how something
happens is counterintuitive to the end user. Functional ease from the
computer's point of view is not the same as functional ease from the
computer user's point of view.

Case in point: the company I work for develops forms-processing systems
(give us your insurance claims and we'll use cool computer programs to get
the data into a database with as little human key entry as possible). Part
of the process involves setting up "validation rules" for your form --
dates can't be later than today's date, all the charges need to add up to
the total, etc. Now, for the programmers, the way to go about all this is
to create all the rules and then link fields on the form to those rules.
The rule functions are primary for them, so they start with a rule and then
assign a bunch of different fields to it. But for the user setting up the
system, the form is primary -- she wants to go to a field and assign a rule
to it. Two different visions of the same process, leading, of course, to
two different user interface designs.

So it's not that programmers don't care about usability. They do, and
they're usually (in my experience) will to talk about it and work on it;
it's just that they are so used to looking at the product from the inside
out that what seems intuitive to them is mumbo-jumbo to the person on the
other side of the monitor.


Marie C. Paretti
Recognition Research, Inc. (RRI)
1750 Kraft Drive, Suite 2000
Blacksburg, VA 24060
mparetti -at- rrinc -dot- com

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