Posts Tagged ‘Apple’

Are You Getting It?

January 10, 2017 Leave a comment

Ten years ago Apple introduced one of the most important devices in the history of technology. It has changed many people’s lives more than almost anything else, and nothing has really supplanted it in the years since then. Obviously I’m talking about the iPhone, but you already knew that.

Like every new Apple product, this wasn’t the first attempt at creating this type of device, it didn’t have the best technical specifications, and it didn’t sell at a particularly good price. In fact, looking at the device superficially many people (the CTO of RIM included) thought it should have immediately failed.

I got an iPhone when Apple introduced the first revision, the iPhone 3G, and it replaced my Sony phone, which was the best available when I bought it. The Sony phone had a flip screen, plus a smaller screen on the outside of the case, a conventional phone keypad, a rotating camera, and an incredibly impressive list of functions including email and web browsing.

In fact the feature list of the Sony phone was much more substantial than the early iPhones. But the difference was the iPhone’s features were something you could use where the Sony’s existed in theory but were so awkward, slow, and unintuitive than I never actually used them.

And that is a theme which has been repeated with all of Apple’s devices which revolutionised a particular product category (Apple II, Mac, iPod, iPhone, iPad). Looking at the feature list, specs, and price compared with competitors, none of these products should have succeeded.

But they did. Why? Well I’m going to say something here which is very Apple-ish and sounds like a marketing catch-phrase rather than a statement of fact or opinion, so prepare yourself. It is because Apple creates experiences, not products.

OK, sorry about that, but I can explain that phrase. The Sony versus iPhone situation I described above is a perfect example. Looking at the specs and features the Sony would have won most comparisons, but the ultimate purpose for a consumer device is to be used. Do the comparison again, but this time with how those specs and features affect the user and the iPhone wins easily.

And it was the same with the other products I mentioned above. Before the Mac, computers were too hard to use. The Mac couldn’t do much initially, but what it could do was so much more easily accessible than with PCs. The iPod was very expensive considering its capacity and list of functions, but it was much easier to use and manage than other MP3 players. And the iPad had a limited feature list, but its operating system was highly customised to creating an intuitive touch interface for the user.

When Steve Jobs introduced the iPhone 10 years ago he teased the audience like this: “[We are introducing] an iPod, a phone and an Internet communicator. An iPod, a phone – are you getting it? These are not separate devices. This is one device. And we are calling it iPhone.”

Today I made a list of the functions my iPhone 6S regularly performs for me, where it replaces other devices, technologies and media. This list includes: watch, stopwatch, alarm clock, point and shoot camera, video camera, photo album, PDA, calculator, GPS, map, music player, portable video player, calendar, appointment diary, book library, ebook reader, audiobook player, magazine, newspaper, recipe book, email client, note pad, drawing tablet, night sky star map, web browser, portable gaming console, radio, TV, audio recorder, TV and audio remote control, landline, and mobile phone.

Not only does it do all of those things but it does a lot of them better than the specialised devices it replaces! And, even though the iPhone isn’t cheap, if you look at the value of the things it replaces it is a bargain. My guess at the value of all the stuff I listed above is $3000 – $5000 which is at least twice the cost of the phone itself.

My iPhone has one million times the storage of the first computer I programmed on. Its processors are tens of thousands of times faster. Its screen displays 25 times more pixels. And, again, it costs a lot less, even when not allowing for inflation.

Most of what I have said would apply to any modern smart-phone, but the iPhone deserves a special place amongst the others for two reasons. First, it is a purer example of ease of use and user-centered functionality than other phones; and second, it was the one phone which started the revolution.

Look at pictures of the most advanced phones before and after the iPhone and you will see a sudden transition. Apple lead the way – not on how to make a smartphone – but on how to make a smartphone that people would actually want to use. And after that, everything changed.

Pure Worthless Drivel

September 14, 2016 Leave a comment

While I was deciding what to call this blog post I went back over previous posts looking for duplicate names and for the frequency of use of the constituent words. One word which showed up a lot more than I thought it might was “drivel”. But it’s a word I think is particularly useful in so many contexts today. With the dumbing down of society there is more and more drivel and that’s the main subject of this post.

The particular source of drivel I want to concentrate on this time is mainstream news. And the particular news item which has just pushed me over the edge and lead to this rant was the reporting on the introduction of the iPhone 7.

I am an IT expert and a consultant/programmer, specialising in working with Apple products, so I do know a bit more than most on this subject. That means that the poor reporting and discussion on the new phone was more obvious than most other subjects would be. But I also notice poor reporting on other subjects where my knowledge is above average (that’s probably almost everything I can say with all due modesty, not so much because my knowledge level is high, but because the average is so low) and I suspect it’s about the same for everything else too.

The drivel on this occasion was from a program called “Story” on one of New Zealand’s main TV channels. I have noticed when it first started it did some fairly worthwhile and controversial investigations and reporting, but as time goes by it really has sunk to the level of inane, simplistic, unsophisticated nonsense that many people predicted when it was first announced.

You might ask why I watch that particular program instead of another channel or not watch TV at all. Well you might guess what I am going to say here: the other channels are even worse! And the program is on at dinner time and it is slightly more sociable to watch TV with other people rather than just look at my iPad screen. Plus there is the point that I like to keep up with the latest drivel, oops I mean news.

You might say that programs like these are as much about light entertainment as they are about real news, but I have occasionally noticed the same thing – although certainly not quite as bad – from more respectable news sources like RNZ.

So the discussion on the iPhone 7 consisted of a few people, none of which had any knowledge of the iPhone or even of tech in general, sitting around making their opinions known. The main source of discussion seemed to be the lack of a headphone socket on the new phone and how that would mean people would not be able to use the earphones of their choice.

Not once during the discussion was it mentioned that other (Android) phones had already dropped that connector (over a year ago) and the world seems to have continued without a major meltdown. Not once was it mentioned that, in the box, is an adapter allowing you to use your existing headphones with the new iPhone through the digital port. And not once was it mentioned that the new phone comes with earphones which connect to the digital (Lightning) port directly.

Now in the greater scheme of things it doesn’t really matter if TV news and current affairs programs are totally accurate about one particular product, but it does matter that the same level of inane ignorance extends to everything.

As I said above, the program in question is called “Story”. Here are the two main definitions of that word from the Oxford Dictionary: 1. an account of imaginary or real people and events told for entertainment; and 2. a report of an item of news in a newspaper, magazine, or broadcast.

I’m sure they had definition 2 in mind when the name was approved, but they seem to be straying more into the area of definition 1 all the time. Truly we are doomed. There’s just too much pure worthless drivel.

Why We Have Bad Software

July 25, 2016 Leave a comment

Many people get extremely frustrated with their interactions with technology, especially computers. I notice this a lot because I work with IT where I am a Mac generalist: I do general support, programming, a bit of server management, and a bunch of other stuff as well.

And when I say “many people” get frustrated I should add myself to that list as well because, either directly or indirectly (by trying to help frustrated users) I am also exposed to this phenomenon.

The strange thing is that generally the problems don’t happen because people are trying to do something unusual, or using some virtually unknown piece of software, or trying to do things in an overly complex way. Most of the frustration happens just trying to get the basics working. By that I mean things like simple word processing in Microsoft Word, simple file access on servers, and simple synchronisation of calendars.

None of these things should be hard, but they often are. In comparison doing complex stuff like creating web apps, or doing complicated graphics manipulations, or completing advanced maths or stats processing often works without a single problem.

Why is this? Well I guess I need to concede (before I offer my own theory) that one reason is that there are far more people doing the simple things and they’re doing them far more often, so if there was a certain failure rate with any process it would show up more for the stuff that is done a lot.

But those simple tasks, like word processing, have been with us on computers for several decades now so it might be reasonable to ask why haven’t they been refined to a greater degree than they have. Is it really so hard to create a word processor which works in a more intuitive, reliable, and responsive way than what he have now? (yes, I’m talking to you, Microsoft)

Well there is. But it involves doing something a lot of people don’t want to do. It involves staying away from the big, dominant companies in IT, especially Microsoft. Well not entirely, because realistically you need to run either Windows or macOS (Linux just doesn’t really work on the desktop) and you need to buy some hardware from Dell, Apple, etc. But what about after that?

Recently I have tried to keep away from the dominant companies in software. For example, I operate a zero-Microsoft policy and am progressing well on my zero-Adobe policy as well. In addition I avoid all the big corporates’ products (Oracle, Cisco, etc) wherever possible.

I don’t think it’s healthy to take this to extremes or to where it becomes more a political thing than a practical one, because then I might end up like the open source fanatics whose decisions are based more on ideology than pragmatism. But it is still a useful guideline.

And I am pragmatic because I do have Microsoft Office and Adobe Creative Suite (all fully licensed) on my machine, I just almost never use them. And, of course, I do use a Mac and therefore use the hardware and operating system made by Apple, the biggest computer corporation in the world.

Although I readily admit to being an Apple “fanboy” I do have to say that, considering the huge resources they have available, they do often fail to perform as well as they should. For example, software is often released with fairly obvious bugs. How much does it cost to hire a few really good bug checkers?

And sometimes Apple products take too long to properly implement some features. With all the programmers they could hire why is this?

I don’t want to pick on Apple and I really have to ask the following question: Microsoft, why is Office 2016 for Mac such a pile of junk? Why is it so slow? Why is it so ugly? Why is it so lacking in functionality (that is one area where Microsoft usually does well: their software is crap in almost every way except it has an impressive feature set).

And just to complete bashing the big three, what’s happening at Adobe? Why does In Design take a week to launch on anything except the latest hardware? Why are there so many poor user interface design choices in Adobe software? And why is the licensing so annoying?

I think the failure of the big companies to create products as good as they should be able to comes back to several factors…

First, large teams of programmers (and probably teams of anything else too) will always be less efficient than smaller teams simply because more time will have to spend trying to coordinate the team rather than actually doing the core work.

Second, in large teams there will be inevitable “disconnections” between the components of a major project that different individuals make. This might result in an inconsistent user experience or maybe even bugs when the components don’t work together properly.

Third, it is likely that many decisions in a large team will be made by managers and that is almost always a bad thing, because managers are generally technically ignorant and have different priorities such as meeting time constraints, fitting in with non-technical corporate aims, or cutting corners in various ways, rather than producing the best technical result.

Fourth, large companies often have too many rules and policies which are presumably formulated to solve a particular problem but more often can be applied without any real thought for any specific situation.

Many software projects are too large for a single programmer or a small team so some of the issues I have listed cannot be fully avoided. But at least if computer users all understand that big companies usually don’t produce the best products they won’t be surprised the next time they have a horrible experience using Microsoft Word.

And maybe they might just look at alternatives.

The Apps I Use

April 2, 2016 Leave a comment

I work in IT doing general computer support and web programming (and anything else to do with Macs and other Apple stuff). Sometimes when looking at problems my clients are having it is suggested I am a bit negative about the programs they are using and have been asked: well if you don’t like (whatever program is under discussion, usually Microsoft Word) what do you use instead?

That’s a good question and I thought I might answer it here. My main computer is a 15 inch i7 MacBook Pro with a high resolution screen, an SSD, and 16G of RAM, so it’s a moderately high-spec machine but not outrageously so. The programs I use could be used by almost anyone else with a fairly modern computer – as long as it’s a Mac, of course.

The programs I use most are in my Dock so to answer the question of what my alternative apps are I’ll just list all the stuff in the Dock and briefly say why they’re there…

General System Tools

Finder. This is Apple’s program which creates the desktop environment for file management. It is a standard part of the system so it might seem pointless listing it here, but there was a long period of time when I did use an alternative called “Path Finder”. That is a great app (like the Finder on steroids) but in the end it just didn’t offer enough extra to replace the good old Finder.

Helium. This is a small app which displays a web page in a floating window. On my Mac I have the Dock and menu bar hidden so I created a small web based app (using PHP) to display the information which would normally be in those two locations (plus a bit more) such as battery level, wifi signal strength, my public IP address, etc.

Astrill. This is a VPN service I use when I want to maintain privacy or make it look like I am actually in another country. I won’t say anything more about this!

Cisco Secure Client. This is the VPN service I use at work.

Server. This is Apple’s server suite which includes services such as web serving, file sharing, and many others.

Parallels. Sometimes I need to run Windows apps (I estimate about 10 minutes per month) just to check that my web-based programs work OK on Windows. Apart from this I have no need for Windows at all. In fact I spend about 10 times as much time maintaining it as I do using it!

Remote Desktop. This is Apple’s remote management service which allows me to take control of other computers screens, install new software, get status reports, etc. I use it a lot to do remote control of other people’s Macs to help with problems and to monitor and maintain remote servers.

Productivity Apps

Notes. This is Apple’s notebook app which automatically syncs with my iPhone and iPad. I keep all sorts of temporary information here which needs to be accessible from all the Apple devices I use. For example, I might write a note here on the iPad about a wine I am trying and copy the synced version into the main database on my laptop later.

Maps. I use Apple’s map program more than Google Maps, although I do use the Google street-view feature sometimes so I do have both installed.

Reminders. I use this to keep track of my list of things to do. It syncs across all of my devices.

Calendar. I have several calendars, mostly on Apple’s iCloud service, where I keep track of my tasks for the day. These also sync across all devices so I get reminders on my iPhone for appointments entered on the laptop.

Contacts. I use Apple’s address book program synced to other devices through iCloud for keeping all my contact information. I have photos for most of the people in the list so I see a picture of the person calling, emailing, or messaging me on all my devices.

Programming Apps

Skim. This is a nice PDF viewing program which I use to read documentation files. It has some useful features but the main reason I use it as an alternative to Apple’s Preview program is just to keep the documentation in a separate place from all the other PDFs I work with.

Script Editor. I use AppleScript (Apple’s scripting language) quite a lot of small tasks on my computer (connecting to servers, launching apps, etc) as well as for more sophisticated applications I have created to automate processes on servers.

XCode. This is Apple’s program development environment. I’m not doing any “real” programming at the moment but I have used this in the past, and it has useful utility tools as well.

FileMaker Pro 11. I have to maintain this older version of FileMaker to open older databases I have created and not moved to the newer version yet.

FileMaker Pro 14. If I am creating a serious database I prefer the MySQL/PHP/Apache environment but I quite like FileMaker for creating simpler desktop databases.

BBEdit. This is my main text editor for programming. It has excellent syntax colouring, keyword autocomplete, multiple file handling, and search and replace facilities. I also use the GREP system in this program to do complicated text processing.

Safari. Apple’s web browser is the one I use for testing and debugging my web sites and apps. It has good analysis tools and follows standards well so it is well suited to this.

Terminal. My favourite app! The command line is the “killer app” for the Mac. I love the Mac’s graphical user interface but I also like getting behind the scenes and using all the power of Unix, including Apache, MySQL, PHP, and shell scripts.

Internet Apps

NetNewsWire. This is an RSS viewer. I don’t tend to use RSS feeds as a source of information much, but I use this to check that the feeds I create for my blog, etc all work OK.

Chrome. I use Google’s browser for most of my web browsing. I like it because it is fast and reliable and handles lots of tabs open simultaneously (I just checked and I currently have 33 tabs).

Messages. This is Apple’s messaging app which syncs with my iPhone and iPad so I can send and receive text messages from my computer (also phone calls and iMessages).

Mail. Apple’s Mail program has a few faults but overall it is very clean and fast. I check 8 email accounts which I use for different reasons here: my main Apple account on iCloud, my work Exchange account, and 6 GMail accounts I use for special purposes. I do have a few sync problems with some of my Google accounts but just quitting Mail and restarting it (a few seconds) usually clears them.

Skype. I don’t use Skype much but occasionally people want to communicate with me this way so I keep it ready. BTW, I don’t count this as a real Microsoft program (see below).

Media Apps

iTunes. I think we all admit that iTunes has its faults but once you get over the confusing user interface it can do a lot and there really isn’t a realistic alternative for managing iPhones, etc.

Photos. Apple’s photo storage app is simple but fast, reliable and efficient. I just use it to store and display photos because I do my photo processing in more powerful apps before adding the photo to my library. Photos also syncs my photos between my computer, iPad, and iPhone through iCloud.

General Purpose Apps

Dictionary. Apple’s dictionary program looks up multiple dictionaries as well as Wikipedia. I have over 30 dictionaries installed but usually only have about 6 active. It also integrates automatically with most programs to allow word lookup from anywhere.

TextWrangler. This is a free, slightly scaled down version of the BBEdit text editor I mentioned above. I use it to open general text files separately from my programming files.

Preview. Apple’s PDF app is surprisingly capable and I use it instead of Adobe’s clunky Adobe Reader and Acrobat. It does almost everything most users need and is really reliable and easy to use.

Pixelmator. I am a big photography fan do I need a good photo editing program. I have used Photoshop since the first version was released, but I now find Adobe apps clumsy and slow, and I don’t like their licensing. So I use Pixelmator instead. It does most of what Photoshop can do, but because it is designed specifically for the Mac it is much nicer to use.

Pages. I use Apple’s Pages for word processing. It is so nice to use a word processor which works reliably, and quickly, and fits in with the rest of the system. I would never go back to Microsoft Word which I believe is probably the single worst program ever written (because of the frustration it causes for so many users).

Numbers. Of all the Microsoft programs I have used Excel is probably the one I find most useful. But, while it is quite powerful, it is still horrible from a user interface perspective so I usually use Apple’s Numbers app instead.

Keynote. Using Apple’s Keynote instead of PowerPoint is such a luxury. I know it will work reliably, that movies will play, and that graphics will always display. Plus it has a much nicer user interface and works better with the rest of the system.

So that’s it. Notice that I am Microsoft free (apart from Skype) and Adobe free. I do still have Office and Creative Suite installed but I almost never use them (really only to help other people who use them and have problems). This is partly political (I don’t like big corporations) and partly practical (I like elegant, well designed software). And yes, I do know that Apple is a big (evil?) corporation but I can’t really work in IT without teaming up with one corporation (Microsoft, Adobe, Apple, Google, Oracle, etc) so I guess at least Apple is the best choice out of all of them.

I Don’t Like It

March 4, 2016 Leave a comment

I’ve been thinking about some of the conclusions I have reached after being an “IT expert” for many years. I use a lot of different computer, smartphone, tablet, and other products and I have a good sense of what is good, what is not so good, and what is just plain horrible. The odd thing is that it is often the most widely-used products from big companies which are the worst. I should say this applies mainly to software rather than hardware.

For example, after many years I no longer use any Microsoft or Adobe products because they are just so, well… not necessarily bad, but just totally average, uninspiring, and unintuitive. And the worst thing is that this unfortunate situation is even creeping into the one company I have higher expectations of: Apple.

I don’t know how many times I have ranted about the inadequacies of Microsoft Word. I work almost entirely with Macs but on the occasions when I do Windows support I have issues there as well. It’s not that Word lacks capabilities – it can do almost anything – it’s more the way it does it. It’s unreliable, unpredictable, unintuitive, and uninspiring.

When I use other word processors I know that I can create a document hundreds of pages long with lots of graphics and it will still print (or more likely convert to PDF) accurately. I know I will be able to work with the document without it becoming slow even on a high performance computer. And I know it won’t become corrupted in some way. But not with Word. I can almost guarantee something will go wrong with a project of any significant degree of complexity.

But I shouldn’t just pick on Microsoft. What about the second biggest software company, Adobe? Well I have always loved Photoshop, and I still use it occasionally. But Adobe products suffer from poor interface design, slow performance, crazy licensing schemes, and other problems which really shouldn’t exist.

And just to show that I really am an “equal opportunity” critic of different products and companies, what about Apple? Well in general I like Apple programs because even though they do a smaller range of tasks, they do them really well. Apple’s word processor, Pages, for example never fails me. It doesn’t do quite as much as Word (although it does everything even a power user like me needs) but I know it will do everthing I want it to reliably.

But Apple have a few notable failures. Let’s get the “elephant in the room” out of the way first: iTunes. Everyone seems to hate iTunes – especially Windows users – and I can see why. It is probably the program I have most problems with (remember I don’t use Microsoft software). But it’s not just poor reliability; it’s an inconsistent, illogical, confused user interface which is possibly even worse.

Apple have made a few other mistakes over the years too, both on the Mac and on “iDevices” (iPod, iPad, iPhone, Apple Watch). For example, the whole Lion operating system was a backward step in many ways, especially in terms of functionality of the built-in apps.

No one thinks that creating modern systems or apps is easy, because there are so many variables which need to be taken into account, especially in the environment the program will be used in and how the user will use it. But the leaders in this area (Microsoft, Adobe, Apple) seem to be the ones doing the worst job in many cases. Why is that, especially considering the huge resources they have? Why can small companies or individuals often make better products?

No doubt it is partly because of the corporate culture where policies and rules have more influence than good design and engineering decisions. Partly it is because of the need to support previous code bases, file formats, and interface designs. And partly it is due to the simple law of diminishing returns. As more people interact in a project their contribution tends to be less about the core project and more about maintaining the complex set of interactions with other participants. So I’m sure that there is a point where having more people makes things worse rather than better.

When I look at the programs I actually use they can be broken into three categories: those which Apple supplies and are either well designed (Pages, Preview, Safari) or just the only real practical option (iTunes); those which I choose to use because they just work really well (TextWrangler, BBEdit, Pixelmator, Skim); and awesome, mostly non-commercial technical and programming tools (Apache, MySQL, PHP).

I think everyone wins when smaller, innovative programmers can challenge the big guys. Unfortunately just for compatibility with other users and to fulfill poorly considered policies I do have to use inferior software like Microsoft Word occasionally. But I don’t like it.

Apple vs the FBI

February 18, 2016 Leave a comment

All reasonably modern Apple devices have very good built-in security. If you were worried that your iPhone, or iPad, or Mac (if it is set up correctly) can be “cracked” and all the information on it be made readable then fear no more. Obviously even the FBI can’t crack an iPhone and neither can Apple.

We know this because the FBI have an iPhone 5c which belonged to one of the perpetrators of the recent terrorist attack in San Bernardino. But they can’t get into it and neither can Apple even when the FBI asks them to.

So now the feds want Apple to create a new version of the operating system which disables the automatic deletion feature when the PIN code is incorrect after 10 tries. In fact they have a court order which forces Apple to do this. But Apple has so far refused and will appeal the decision.

But why? Why would Apple want to protect a terrorist’s information when they could instead help with the investigation? Is it because they don’t want to waste the time and money on a project which has no benefit to them? Do they want to protect any guilty parties or hinder the investigation in some way? Or do they want to protect their customers and maintain the security of the platform?

I think it’s obvious that the first two options really don’t make sense so it seems that Apple really do want to make a stand here on behalf of the users and not compromise the security and privacy they currently have.

It’s actually quite a courageous position because I am fairly sure that almost any other company would have simply complied with the legal requirement of cooperation and helped break the security.

So it might be courageous but is it wise? Shouldn’t Apple be prepared to sacrifice privacy in this one case to help with the investigation of a serious criminal event? Probably not, because whatever the feds say, this will not be the only time they use an ability like this and it’s unlikely to remain with an organisation which ostensibly represents the “good guys”.

There are two clear problems if a way is created to bypass security: first, the official law organisations will almost surely use it for illicit purposes such as stealing private data belonging to political opponents of the government; and second, the technique will equally surely find its way into the hands of the real bad guys (that is the bad guys who are even worse than the good guys, who are often quite bad themselves).

This is a rare case where someone is actually doing what I have suggested is everybody’s obligation: do do what is right rather than what is legal. And, although there are many things I criticise Apple for, I think this is an example of where they do have standards far above most other corporations. For doing what’s right I give them full credit.

Bad Design

February 11, 2016 Leave a comment

If there’s one thing that bugs me it’s bad design. Actually, there isn’t just one thing that bugs me, and bad design might not even be at the top of the heap if there was, but just for the purposes of this blog post let’s just assume that it is my number one source of annoyance.

As anyone who follows this blog has probably realised by now, I work with computers. I am a generalist but I work mainly with Macs, I do some web site and web database creation, some miscellaneous programming, some general consulting, hardware repairs and installation, and anything else required.

I’m not an expert on design and have no qualifications in the subject, but it is an interest I have and I have done some reading in the area. When I create programs, databases, and web sites user interface design is one of my primary concerns. Of course, speed, reliability, and functionality are also important but I give all 4 of those factors equal weight, something which many other people don’t seem to do.

At this point I should say what I mean by “design” in this case. I mean not just how the program, web site, or product looks, but how its functionality is structured: whether the interactive elements are consistent and intuitive, whether the response to the user makes sense, and whether the item in question works harmoniously both internally and in the larger environment (for example within the operating system or between itself and related items).

As I said, I work mainly with Macs (and other Apple products) and to a large extent that is because of Apple’s design standards, but even Apple is far from perfect. But at least they are ahead of most other companies so I choose them more as the best of a series of bad options rather than a good one in any absolute sense.

To be fair, these things aren’t easy, and what makes sense as a design element to a programmer might not make sense to users. And often people aren’t even aware that they are the victims of bad design. They just know that they feel lost, or frustrated, or uncomfortable and might not be sure why. There is also the point that in many cases there isn’t just one big problem which is obvious.

Instead of one big problem there might be a series of poor features which leads to the “death by a thousand cuts”. The user might not notice each one but in the end it is just as fatal! This is how I feel about Windows in particular (and to a somewhat lesser extent, other Microsoft products).

Let me give an example of how user interface design can make life easier in the real world. How many people walk up to a door which they should push and pull instead? I do that, even when there is a sign which says “push” (I’m a real genius). But there are other doors I just walk up to and push without thinking. Why? Because the push doors which work have a push plate instead of a handle. Why have a handle if you can’t pull the door?

So let’s look at this in the software world. I don’t want to pick on Microsoft any more because they are such an easy target, so let me choose one of Apple’s more heinous transgressions instead. In iOS Apple have thrown out the traditional graphical buttons and provided coloured (often red) text for active elements instead. That’s not too bad because we are used to something similar with active text on web sites (like links). But when titles and other text which doesn’t do anything are the same colour and sometimes active text isn’t coloured it just turns into a “tap it and see” situation! Why do this when it’s so easy to provide a distinctive design element? Maybe visual attractiveness here overcomes the bigger design picture.

But that is a specific example of a problem and because it is so well defined it is quite easy to fix. In fact there is a “button shapes” option in the accessibility section of iOS settings which restores a sort of button-like appearance to active text.

The bigger problem is the software – often expensive corporate systems – which are just horrible to use. It seems that the people who wrote this software either have never used it (so don’t realise how bad it is), or don’t listen to user feedback, or are forced into designing a specific way due to management restraints, or (most likely) all of the above.

There’s no easy fix for this because the problems go beyond mere user interface design and encompass the whole model the systems are built around.

In fact there does seem to be almost an inverse relationship between the size of the team working on a software project and the usability and general quality of the finished product. That’s probably a bit too simplistic because many creations of a single individual are actually pretty terrible, and big projects are beyond what a single person can do so a real comparison can’t be made. But I do think that having too big a team – and especially too many non-technical people – is the biggest cause of bad products.

Whatever the cause is bad design is rife in modern software. Most software exists to allow people to interact with information. I think that “people” aspect deserves more attention. It’s time for human interface design to be given a higher priority.