Users Ignore Technical Quality

In Dangling by a Trivial Feature, James Hague (quite understandably) dismisses a vector drawing application when he discovers it lacks a simple but crucial feature: Showing the current size of the selection rectangle as it is being dragged with the mouse.

The fix involves two subtractions, a change to a format string, and a bit of testing. It’s trivial, especially in comparison to all the difficult, under-the-hood work to make the selection of objects possible in the first place, but it makes no difference, because I’ve moved on.

Hague describes a “seemingly superficial fit and finish issue” in an otherwise solid program, but I think there’s a more general principle at work here. Earlier this year, John D. Cook noted that Users will tolerate a lot to get their work done. Faced with a choice between an ugly, poorly documented, unstable application that has 100% of required features and a beautiful, well-documented, robust one that only has 99%, users will pick the technically inferior application – and they will like it!

User: This is a really great piece of software!
Me: But doesn’t it crash easily?
User: Yeah, but it does just what I need!

This seems perfectly obvious from the user’s point of view, but Hague’s anecdote shows how developers can miss one simple little feature that barely registers on their to-do list but that’s crucial to users. Worse, users tend to perceive only the “superficial” features they want while totally ignoring the technical quality of the rest of the product.

Microsoft’s history offers some famous examples. Older Windows versions were crash-prone and required frequent reboots or even reinstallations – but those same versions achieved a near-monopoly because they supported the hardware and software everyone wanted to use. Word’s formatting system likes to mangle long documents, but most users just want to write letters and other short documents which Word makes very easy. From the MS-DOS days until recently, PC games were notoriously buggy, unstable, and difficult to configure – but that was also the time of their rapid commercial expansion, only ended by Microsoft’s own Xbox console. That console’s successor was prone to overheating and destroying disks, neither of which prevented its amazing success in the market.

Today, a minimalist design style exemplified by Apple products and popular web apps successfully ignores another traditional criterion of technical quality: total amount of functionality. Such designs provide very few features but try to pick the most desirable ones, and package them in the most accessible and attractive way possible. Whether the axe falls on functionality or robustness, the principle is ultimately the same: focus on what your target audience want and ignore what they don’t care about.

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