Software — usability and being too smart

How complicated should a Coffee machine be?

There is such a thing as being too smart. Everybody knows that.

When someone overthinks a solution, you accuse the person as being too smart. As it is with people, so it is with software. Software can be too smart as well. And software is not just that applications that run on your laptop or computer, but any programmable machine. Those programmable appliances have embedded chips with software pre-loaded into it.

Products start to become too smart when the product developers run out of ideas for new features or functionality. Sometimes “it” also happens when developers think they are smarter than their software users. Researchers also love working on this stuff. It has optimization, data-science, machine-learning and AI written all over it, countless research papers can be churned out, to the eventual detriment of the product.

Let me give you an example of what i mean by being too smart.

Say, I went to the local appliances store (or online, in this day and age) and bought the top-of-the-line, super-expensive, over-hyped coffee making machine, that brews the coffee, pours creamers and sugar as needed, and out comes your steaming cup of joe just right, as you always love it …. or do you….

Assuming that I figured out how to operate the machine to get a drink of coffee, I prepare my first coffee with dark-roast coffee beans, 1 tablespoon of cream and 1 tablespoon of sugar. It turns out perfect. I love it! Second time, I do the same thing. I keep doing the exact same thing for a few weeks. Now this is a smart machine, after a while it learns, …yes, it learns what I like, after all its “smart”. So next time I start the machine, it “thinks” it knows what I need and automatically makes the coffee that I always made before. This is fine and dandy, until one day, i feel like having coffee without the creamer. But whatever buttons I press, out comes coffee with 1 tablespoon of cream and 1 tablespoon of sugar! Hmmm, let me look at that manual again…..

Now the machine has become too smart.

Good usability design gives users a sense of control. You might have the smartest algorithm that can read people’s minds, but unless you want people to be intimidated by your product, you have to provide them a sense of control.

This can be done in a number of ways. Take the case of the coffee machine above: Provide visual feedback on the choices it has made and easy ways to change it.

The same principles apply to software that interacts with users.
Jacob Nielsen, the Usability Guru, lists the “Ten Heuristics for User Interface Design”:-

  • Visibility of system status — the system should always keep users informed about what is going on, through appropriate feedback within reasonable time.
  • Match between system and the real world — the system should speak the users’ language, with words, phrases and concepts familiar to the user, rather than system-oriented terms. Follow real-world conventions, making information appear in a natural and logical order.
  • User control and freedom — Users often choose system functions by mistake and will need a clearly marked “emergency exit” to leave the unwanted state without having to go through an extended dialogue. Support undo and redo.
  • Consistency and standards — Users should not have to wonder whether different words, situations, or actions mean the same thing. Follow platform conventions.
  • Error prevention — Even better than good error messages is a careful design which prevents a problem from occurring in the first place. Either eliminate error-prone conditions or check for them and present users with a confirmation option before they commit to the action.
  • Recognition rather than recall — Minimize the user’s memory load by making objects, actions, and options visible. The user should not have to remember information from one part of the dialogue to another. Instructions for use of the system should be visible or easily retrievable whenever appropriate.
  • Flexibility and efficiency of use — Accelerators — unseen by the novice user — may often speed up the interaction for the expert user such that the system can cater to both inexperienced and experienced users. Allow users to tailor frequent actions.
  • Aesthetic and minimalist design — Dialogues should not contain information which is irrelevant or rarely needed. Every extra unit of information in a dialogue competes with the relevant units of information and diminishes their relative visibility.
  • Help users recognize, diagnose, and recover from errors — Error messages should be expressed in plain language (no codes), precisely indicate the problem, and constructively suggest a solution.
  • Help and documentation — Even though it is better if the system can be used without documentation, it may be necessary to provide help and documentation. Any such information should be easy to search, focused on the user’s task, list concrete steps to be carried out, and not be too large.