Hitchhiker's Guide to Software Architecture and Everything Else - by Michael Stal

Monday, May 12, 2008

Developer Usability

In the last months I've seen a lot of frameworks, platforms and libraries which revealed a substantial lack of usability. Developers reported to me that using those APIs was more a nightmare than a pleasure. Some of them just stopped using these artifacts, others built their own workarounds on top. When asking the API-developers for their comments, it turned out that most of those APIs have been built without any consideration of usability. In addition, adequate documentation was missing very often, which of course is also related to usability. Interestingly, I often hear the same complaints from end users. The UIs of most applications or devices are a pain. For instance, I am using a SAP-based system for ordering work items. What I need to fill in in all those fields is by no means self-explanatory. Help is missing or inappropriate. Error messages don't give any guidance what could be wrong. Suppose, shops like Amazon would come up with such UIs. How successful, do you think, would they be? Whenever we are building such systems we need two things:

  • a clear understanding of the domain
  • a tight interaction with users to ensure usability

For example, if we read the book by Krzysztov Kwalina and Brad Adams on how to design frameworks, you will find the recommendation on scenario-based design. Find out how end users could best use the system you are going to build in terms of user scenarios. Implement the API to support the most important and common scenarios. After the first prototype/iteration of the system is available, ask the target audience to use it and give feedback what they like or don't like. Then improve it!    

In contrast to common belief, architecture is not only about functional requirements and operational qualities. It is also about usability. A system that meets all requirements but is not usable, is of no value for its users. As an example: I owned Rio and Creative MP3 players which provided an incredible amount of features, but lacked usability. After a while I switched to Apple IPods which have less features and are significantly more expensive but offer a great user experience. 

At the end, you should strive for making the end user's life a pleasure. In this context, just remember that you yourself are using many more systems than you are developing.  Something similar is written in many public restrooms within Germany: Leave the room in such a way you'd like to discover it.


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