Software quality in another valley

In the mid-90s, there was a notable drop in the quality of software, more or less across the board. The thinking at the time was that this was a result of software development businesses (*cough* Microsoft) deciding to hire physicists and mathematicians because they were smarter (maybe) than computer scientists and, after all, building software was a  straightforward process as long as you were smart enough. This didn’t work out so well!

But I think we’re well into a second version of this pattern, driven by a similar misconception — that coding is the same thing as software design and engineering — and a woeful ignorance of user interface design principles.

Here are some recent examples that have crossed my path:

  • A constant redesign of web interfaces that doesn’t change the functionality, but moves all of the relevant parts to somewhere else on the screen, forcing users to relearn how to navigate.
  • A complete ignorance of Fitt’s Law (the bigger the target, the faster you can hit it with mouse or finger), especially, and perhaps deliberately, those that kill a popup. Example: CNN’s ‘breaking news’ banner across the top.
  • My android duckduckgo app has a 50:50 chance, when you hit the back button, of going back a page or dropping you out of the app.
  • The Fast Company web page pops up two banners on every page (one inviting you to sign up for their email newsletter and one saying that they use cookies) which together consume more than half of the real estate. (The cookies popup fills the screen in many environments; thanks, GDPR!)
  • If you ask Alexa for a news bulletin, it starts at the moment you stopped listening last time — except that that was typically yesterday, so it essentially starts at a random point. (Yes, it tells you that you can listen to the latest episode, but the spell it requires to make this happen is so unclear I haven’t worked it out.)
  • And then there’s all the little mysteries: Firefox addins that seem to lose some of their functionality, Amazon’s Kindle book deal of the day site doesn’t list the deals of the day.

There are several possible explanations for this wave of loss of quality. The first is  the one I suggested above: that there’s an increase in unskilled software builders who just are not able to build robust products, especially apps. About a third of our undergraduates seem to have side hustles where they’re building apps, and the quality of the academic work they submit doesn’t suggest that these apps represent value for money, even if free.

Second, it may be that the environments in which new software is deployed have reached a limit where robustness is no longer plausible. This could be true at the OS level (e.g. Windows), or phone systems (e.g. Android) or web browsers. In all of these environments the design goal has been to make them infinitely extensible but also (mostly) backwards compatible — and maybe this isn’t really possible. Certainly, it’s easy to get the impression that the developers never tried their tools — “How could they not notice that” is a standard refrain.

Third, it may be that there’s a mindset among the developers of free-to-the-user software (where the payment comes via monetising user behaviour) that free software doesn’t have to be good software — because the punters will continue to use it, and how can they complain?

Whichever of these explanations (or some other one) is true, it looks like we’re in for a period in which our computational lives are going to get more irritating and expensive.

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