Software shouldn’t waste my time

One of my favorite tech execs here in St. Louis is Bryan Doerr, who runs a company called Observable Networks that recently was acquired by Cisco. (Here is his presentation of how the company got started.) One of the things he is frequently saying is that if a piece of software asks for your attention to understand a security alert, we don’t want to waste your time. (He phrases it a bit differently.) I think that is a fine maxim to remember, both for user interface designers and for most of us that use computers in our daily lives.

As a product reviewer, I often find time-wasting moments. Certainly with security products, they seem to be designed tis way on purpose: the more alerts the better! That way a vendor can justify its higher price tag. That way is doomed.

Instead, only put something on the screen that you really need to know. At that moment in time. For your particular role. For the particular device. Let’s break this apart.

The precise moment of time is critical. If I am bringing up your software in the morning, there are things that I have to know at the start of my day. For example, when I bring up my calendar, am I about to miss an important meeting? Or even an unimportant meeting? Get that info to me first and fast. Is there something that happened during the night that I should jump on? Very few pieces of software care about this sort of timing of its own usage, which is too bad.

Part of this timing element is also how you deal with bugs and what happens when they occur. Yes, all software has bugs. But do you tell your user what a particular bug means? Sometimes you do, sometimes you put up some random error message that just annoys your users.

Roles are also critical. A database administrator has a lot different focus from a “normal” user. Screens should be designed differently for these different roles. And the level of granularity is also important: if you have just two or three roles, that is usually not enough. If you have 17, that is probably too many. Access roles are usually the last thing to be baked into software, and it shows: by then the engineers are already tired about their code and don’t want to mess around with things. Like anything else with software engineering, do this from writing your first line of code if you want success.

Finally, there is understanding the type of device that is looking at your data. As more of us use mobile devices, we want less info on the screen so we can read it without squinting at tiny type. In the past, this was usually called responsive design, meaning that a web interface designer would build an app to respond to the size of the screen, and automatically rearrange stuff so that it would make sense, whether it was viewed on a big sized desktop monitor or a tiny phone. If your website or app isn’t responsive, you need to fix this post-haste. It is 2017 people.

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