New in Plaintext

By Peter Piazza

Browse the bookstore for a beginner’s text on computers and it’s easy to come away feeling digitally inadequate. Titles that refer to the reader as a “dummy” or worse seem to be the only ones that, with wit and easy-to-understand language, can make technology accessible to the average reader.

But the average reader is no dummy, and is not to blame for incomprehensible technological products. David S. Platt has written a book that puts the blame for poor software and Web applications squarely where it belongs—on the programmers and companies who create them.

In Why Software Sucks…and What You Can Do About It, Platt explains that a major problem is the dearth of usability testing, where real-life users test the product long before it goes to market. He also savages programmers for poor communication skills. “Programmer-designed user interfaces are at their absolute worst when communicating error messages to the user,” he says.

He gives an example of trying to save a Web page to his hard drive. When the process was 99 percent complete, a dialog box titled “Error Saving Web page” popped up with the message, “The Web page could not be saved to the selected location.”

Platt complains: “The box doesn’t tell me how to figure out exactly what the problem is, or where to go for more information.” Another concern is that if it is the location where the page was to be saved that was the problem, why did the software wait until 99 percent of the operation was complete to fail? He also objects to the title of the box, observing, “I didn’t make an error. I did what the program allowed me to do. The program made an error when it wouldn’t save my page and then made another error when it couldn’t explain why.”

Platt’s go-for-the-jugular style is not for the fainthearted, and programmers are not the only ones who get battered here. Web designers (and their creations) and IT security experts come under attack as well.

Platt offers solutions as well as biting criticisms. The first solution? Understand the nature of the problem. “You are not dumb. User interfaces really do suck, and they shouldn’t.” He urges users to empower themselves with steps such as making sure they buy and use superior products (such as the Web browser Firefox; the newest version of Microsoft’s Internet Explorer has incorporated many of Firefox’s features, which helps to prove Platt’s point); contacting manufacturers about products they like or don’t like; and publicly (and in large numbers) ridiculing poor software.

Maybe if enough of us follow his tips, user interfaces will start getting better.

@ The book, published by Addison-Wesley Professional, is available for $17.99 through the publisher’s Web site.



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