Thursday, June 7, 2007

Sorry, no donut for you!

In my humble opinion, the error message above was not written by an engineer, programmer or any “techie” or “geek”.

Worldwide, or should I say, Web-wide, if you take a cursory look at any successful web-site, you may notice the intuitive interface, the friendly messages, minimal errors from the web-site, and hence low frustration on the users’ part. Corporations always seek to maximize their profits by expanding their user/consumer base more and more, but in the past they have always focused their efforts on the technical aspects of the computer industry. Recently, more and more profit seekers have realized the virtue in focusing about half their efforts on the “design” aspect – separating it from “function” to make their services more "user-friendly".

The lack of usability of software and the poor design of programs are the secret shame of the industry. Users are silent over this; perhaps they suffer from a complex – that they are not tech-savvy or web-savvy enough to overcome the challenges, but are they the ones to blame?

Any software engineer, software developer, computer programmer or coder always assumes a certain level of expertise on the part of users who will use the interface they develop. The irony is that they can never imagine how it would be like to NOT understand the technicalities like they do. What is “street smart” in real life is “web savvy” in the virtual world. Users learn by doing, by making mistakes and learning along the way. It doesn’t come naturally to them. But it should.

Our definition of a “programmer” is flawed. My desktop dictionary defines it as “a person who designs and writes and tests computer programs”. But what is design? What makes something a design problem? The irony I mentioned before is that these coders are aboard two ships sailing different ways. One ship goes to the world of technology, while the other one sails to the world of people and human purposes.

Consider a similar problem that we fixed decades ago – architects, not civil engineers are the ones trained to design public works such as buildings, road layouts, bridges or harbours. In most cases, you probably have had no trouble finding your way to the lift lobby in a building, or figuring out where to access the underpass to cross the road. Architecture and engineering are separate disciplines in their own right, even as they function as peers to each other. But in the course of the process of “designing, constructing and maintaining public works” (as my desktop dictionary mistakenly defines a civil engineer), engineers seek direction from the architect – the designer.

Design is not meant to be a subpart of computer science – or any technical field for that matter. In 2001, about the time the dot-com bubble burst, I took a diploma course from Informatics (Lahore) during my summer vacations called “Web design and development”. I passed it comfortably not because of my HTML skills or because I could easily handle Dreamweaver 3.0 (a web development and design tool), rather, it was because in our group project I designed the flow from screen to screen, and the layout of each web page. However, the certification said I was able to code in HTML, XML, CSS and that I was fully trained in iNet+! Today if I present this certificate to any employer, they would expect me to be well-versed in these technical aspects, when in fact, this is not my area of expertise.

The people who aspire to become interface developers or software designers – designers of any “techy” stuff in fact – all live a guerilla existence today. I’m not saying we might rule the world of technology tomorrow, I’m saying we will. Artists, entrepreneurs and other “idea persons”: together.

Okay, I got carried away there while trying to sound dramatic. My point is, we need our space - our own college degrees, our own communities and professional platforms. We need to create a professional discipline dedicated to us and our ‘cause’.

Currently I am working to launch a web-site portal of sorts, and my job description is that of a marketing internee – except that it includes web-site interface design. The web-site needs to be marketable, which is why interface design comes under the marketing umbrella. Being “marketing” I am separated from the so-called “I.T.” department because we have to work through the CEO to communicate with "I.T." and make changes. There is no direct coordination between the two departments since theoretically they are totally unrelated to each other, but in effect, they aren’t. So often I think how great it would be if we could communicate and coordinate like architect and engineer, sharing the thinking process as we discuss the various IFs and BUTs amongst us, but for now that is not happening.

Things like these need to change. And people need to realize this and change their attitudes accordingly. Especially engineers, professors, CEOs and any other technical persons.

Added note: Obviously the following error message is written by a technical person - notice how it doesn't even convey what kind of posting error the first one is until you get the second one - after guessing where the 200 character restriction may be. (The errors are for the labels for this post.)

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