Category Archives: User experience

Why we need a better tool set for building software

At the end of my last blog, I asked, “So – why is technology flawed? Why not build it well in the first place?” There could be several reasons, today I want to discuss just two of many:

  • Limited types of people in the industry: The software engineers do not always understand what is needed because they may not understand the people who will use the technology. Because of this they may deliver software that is the product they themselves want to use. This means technology can be biased towards the type of people who are already software engineers.
  • Automation bias and poor decision making: The software engineers and the non-engineers on the project team may have a toolset that does not enable them to make good decisions. Yes, all the flaws in technology that I talked about in the previous blog are also true for the tool set that software engineers use. The tools are intended to help decision making in the project. Is the software ready? Has it been tested? Does it work? Are there any risks in delivering it now? But if the tools are flawed, and hard to use, people are more likely to make poor decisions with poor outcomes. That will lead to flawed software and potentially an ugly UX for everyone else. Note that technologists and software engineers also suffer from software with flaws in it, software that is hard to understand, and tools that prompt them into automation bias.

Two sayings that come to mind here “a fool with a tool is still a fool” and “a poor workman blames his tools” and it would be easy to stop at that. But the industry has spent too long building up some traditions around old mind sets and old tool sets that favour old ways of doing things. If technology and software is to serve and reflect the widest population, to everyone’s benefit, then the teams need to reflect society. If the teams reflect society, then the tool set needs to be easily used by a wider range of people, not just the obvious technologists.

As Seth Godin remarks in [Demand Guardrails] “If peer pressure and short-term urgencies set us up to do things we regret, we come out ahead when we support cultural changes that remove that peer pressure and lessen those short-term urgencies.” This blog is a call for a change to the tool sets used by software engineers, to make them easier to use, easier to understand, and supportive of good decision making that tends to a beautiful UX for everyone. We need to support cultural changes in the world of software engineering that remove the peer pressure of being the same as we’ve always been. We need to support cultural changes that remove short term urgencies that stop us mending out tool set. We are the cobblers, and we are the cobblers’ children with no shoes.

Old tools sets are hard to use. Early sewing machines required skills with the machines that are not needed by modern machines; a sewer today can concentrate much more on the project, and less on the tools. Early cars were hard to drive, with starting handles and double de-clutching to master. Modern cars are easy to start, easy to drive, automatic gears and power steering. The driver can concentrate on the journey and the destination. More people can use a sewing machine now, and make their own clothes. More people can drive, and have the independence to make journeys. [Rise of the female petrolhead, Car electric starter, Treadle sewing machine difficulty]

I would like to move software engineering tool sets to beyond the treadle machine and the car with a crank handle starter to a modern, smooth system where automation and tools serve the project team rather than being a hindrance. This will address both the problems above:

it is like working with something designed to be used by a 12-year-old boy in his bedroom in the 1980’s”.

“Why would I want to use a tool called Github?

But this is not just a problem about gender or culture; the tools are themselves flawed and old-fashioned.

  • Tool flaws: IT teams are themselves beset with the same problems and frustrations with the tool set they have to use, and this leads to the release of highly flawed software. Many IT tool sets are almost deliberately arcane and are gender biased. Many become “shelfware” – purchased but hardly ever used. Others are used with automation bias – the results are wrong but are treated as correct. Here are some more quotes from developers, testers, and researchers about flaws in tools

Developer: “I spend 50% of my time wrestling with the technology instead of solving the problem I am working on” Quote from WII meeting

Software tester finding decision making not supported by IT toolset: “The test tool marked all the tests as passed except 1, but in fact none of the tests marked “passed” had actually run” Quote from Fewster and Graham “Experiences of Test Automation”

Problems with customer support tools: “Ethnographic research paints a sad picture of the current state of the ITSM market.   …vision is to build a solution designed for humans, not processes” [http://blogs.ca.com/2016/01/27/moving-itservice-management-to-the-21st-century/]

Evidence that developers do not find tools easy to use: “…so now I wanna know why raising a string exception is bad. Like what should I be doing instead? Since it thinks it’s a problem. And so none of these really help me…” (Why Don’t Software Developers Use Static Analysis Tools to Find Bugs? By Johnson, Song, and Murphy-Hill).

Evidence that tools do not work for IT people “…a lack of consideration for how people work and think … basically it’s still the mindset that the human adapts to the computer, not vice-versa.” (A Taxonomy of Tool-Related Issues Affecting the Adoption of Model-Driven Engineering by Whittle, Hutchinson, Rouncefield, Burden and Heldal)

In the previous blog I said: The reasons that technology and software may prompt poor decision making include defects in the software […or that it…] may function correctly, but in a way that does not aid people in making good decisions. … dealing with frustrations, defects and consequences of poor engineering is a bad experience for the people using the technology; a flawed, ugly UX. That is true for tools used by the teams delivering software, and is a key root cause for the problems we all experience with delivered software.

What I will propose in my next blog is a solution to these problems.

Why everyone needs a better experience of software

If someone makes the wrong decision what might be the impact? It could be frustrating, or dangerous, or even fatal. We all make decisions all the time – what to eat, what to wear, what to read or watch. And frequently we make very important decisions – financial decisions, life changing decisions. We also rely on experts and professionals (nurses, doctors, pilots, financiers, politicians) to make decisions for us.

Apart from our own knowledge and brains, the tools we have to help us are technology, and software. Technology is cheap, and has become the basis for much of people’s decision making.

Software as part of that technology is now ubiquitous, but often fails to delight us. It fails to support good decision making. When the technology goes wrong, when the software is flawed, what is the impact? For example, a satnav that is out of date may give us directions that take us into a road that is no longer driveable. As humans we then need to engage our own brains and override the suggestions of the satnav. But often when automated decision making is provided, people will over-rely on it and fail to over-ride flawed decisions – the [automation bias].

This is important because of the breadth and scope of the decision making that technology supports. Many people are using a wide range of different systems to make many types of decisions:

  • The impact of our decisions may be personal (shopping, dating, entertainment, directions for travel) and important to us, an individual.
  • The impact may be organisational (financial forecasting, data analytics for marketing) where the outcome of the decisions is important to a board and shareholders.
  • It may be geographical, political and global (weather forecasting, border controls, international policing) and important to citizens of many countries.
  • One country’s politicians may use decision making systems local to one country (medical/health population trends, voting systems) and the impact will be on the politicians and the general public.
  • The people using technology may be experts / professionals (doctors, nurses, pilots, farmers) or lay people (patients, travellers, shoppers).

The reasons that technology and software may prompt poor decision making include defects in the software that mean it does not function correctly. If we are lucky, the defect will be sufficiently bad that it is obvious the output is wrong, and so people will correct the software, or ignore/override it. Sometimes, the software is wrong, but it is difficult to see that it is wrong. In that case, people are misled into trusting it, and so may make poor decisions based on flawed advice. More subtly, the software may function correctly, but in a way that does not aid people in making good decisions. The software may be slow, insecure, hard to use. The “user experience” (UX) that a person has when using technology and software should be beautiful, that is what is intended. But dealing with frustrations, defects and consequences of poor engineering is a bad experience for the people using the technology; a flawed, ugly UX.

So – why is technology flawed? Why not build it well in the first place? I will discuss  a couple of the reasons for that in my next blog.