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Laundering on the iterative wash cycle.

AIRSIDE -- When you next use your word processing suite, are you really using the extra features that persuaded you to buy the new upgrade in the first place? Would you have accepted easier use over new features as a purchase decision? When was the last time a software maker said 'Buy this - it's easier to use than our last version'? Thought not.

We're all software junkies. Your addiction is part of their business model. We all wait in anticipation of the next 'fix' - the new release. And they have us by the short and curlies - they stop supporting older software!

The thought came to me as I was using an ancient copy of Office the other day - it integrated so well into my 'modern' desktop. The heavy revolutions of new releases were completely lost on this piece of software - to no detriment I might add.

Doyen of the usability police, Jakob Neilsen, calls for 'good software'. A better user experience - and bug fixes across all new releases before the addition of new features.

And what does make for good software? BFG's new intake of students will ponder this early in their course. For something that we deal with every day of our lives, a wild array of answers might be forthcoming - especially from IT professionals. To the uninitiated, a difficult front-end often obscures powerful software to the acolyte. The presence of contextual markers that strike for ease of interactivity - navigational waypoints by which users can refer - are often completely absent in new software releases and Open Source programs.

A fundamental understanding of software and how people use it - interactivity - lends to better usability, and in turn - better software. The easiest and simplest user interfaces are notoriously difficult to design, made more so in complex software [read 3D]. To what extent is an intuitive interface the foundation for successful software, especially in a medium with which the user might have no previous experience?

Much front end design follows convention - a user expects to see 'save' under 'file'. But don't expect to see many tabbed palettes; UI real estate is rapidly being snapped up by the patent lawyers.

Of course software sells like soap powder - each iteration is new, improved, and hangs on a fashionable meme. No-one bothers to question what they have been sold the last five versions.

The truth is, like soap, all software does pretty much the same thing. New iterations usually seek to merge features from other bits of software as people change the way they work. A future version of Outlook, for example, might offer RSS aggregation and syndication, much the same as newsreaders allow you to do today. This time its centralised and sanitised for the corporate desk. 500 bucks please.

But the new features coming at you in the next release of your favourite program might be obtainable elsewhere. Anyone looking for true value for money [it's usually free] and a sharper edge to the way they work should look towards the Open Source movement.

It is here that you will find genuine stars, years before they hit the big time on the Microsoft stage. Here budding usability experts get the chance to pay their dues, design and implement. Good design and documentation skills are always in demand. Without the spin.

Just say no ;p

September 23, 2003 in newMedia Design | Permalink

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