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Software Understandability

Jack Dyer
April 13, 2016

The Understandability of Software

And yes, that’s definitely a real word.

Does anyone remember Macromedia Flash? That glorious software that made some frontend developers and future animators happy; and nearly everyone else in the known universe frustrated?

It’s back.
No not really. 

How many people just had mild panic attacks over the thought? I apologise.

But it’s back in our office, for the afternoon at least. A colleague needs to use it to demonstrate prototype animations for handing over to the developers. She’s hitting her head against the brick wall of confusion and understandably so; I looked at her problem, suggested a solution that seemed obvious to both of us, and Flash just looked blankly back at us as if to say “I’m not sure what you’re trying to do!”

Flash was built by programmers, for programmers.

This situation led me onto an interesting idea, that until now I hadn’t been able to put into words. But here’s an iteration of the phrase that might make sense (I hope, otherwise it’s quite ironic):

The understandability of products depends on the mentality of their creators

Flash was hugely popular for a niche market of people. While everyone in the first world has heard of it, only a few have mastered it. And most of those who have heard of it only know it as ‘that annoying player you have to update to watch videos’. The software’s original purpose was only understood by a handful of people who thought in similar ways to the creators of the software.

And that’s a common problem today. It’s what happens when you have products and software being made by people who are of one mindset. The people who argue: “I understand it, therefore others will”.

Or worse: “I think this way, and I’m a person. Therefore, I understand how people think.”

To give an example of a profession, Engineers are highly trained and incredibly talented individuals, capable of advanced and logical thinking. They’re experts at understanding how machines ‘think’. But this brainpower leaves little room for empathy, and even less room for understanding howpeople think.

Flash was built in a logical way, a way that requires us to have as thorough an understanding of the software as the original programmers, who spent months (if not years) looking at it. We don’t have that kind of time, and it’s unfair for the creators of the software to expect us to.

To this end, people who are not programmers or engineers are not inclined to think like programmers or engineers. And that also includes conducting operations that they see as logical, such as reading a manual/instructions. We lead busy lives, and we’re continually weighing up factors like

  • How important is this tool in my life?
  • Do I need to use it?
  • If yes, how long am I willing to struggle with instructions or a poor interface before I look for an easier to use competitor?

Time is precious

An old adage we’re all familiar with. If we have to spend our time trying to understand how to use a product instead of just getting on with using it, that’s time wasted, and we’ll quickly lose interest.

If you’re building a website, web app, native app, SaaS or any product with an interface, don’t make understanding the product the user’s job.

Make it your job to create something they’ll understand. Make your software understandable.
Jack Dyer
Jack is a UX designer at Sonovate. Advocate of Human Centred Design. Deep thinker; tea drinker; steak eater.

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