Essays on Technology and Culture

Why Technology Companies Don’t Understand People

There’s a joke in technology circles about how programmers don’t understand how non-programmers use computers. Daring Fireball used to have a “UI of the Week” feature that linked to UI atrocities that only a programmer could love. It’s true that not every piece of software needs to be as sexily designed as a piece of Apple hardware. There’s nothing wrong with a utility looking like one. It’s just one small symptom of a larger problem in computing as more and more ordinary people embrace technology.

Joel Marsh claims that Google and Microsoft “don’t understand people.” This is an understatement. [1] Most technology companies don’t understand people. Often, it’s that their focus isn’t on the person who actually uses the software every day. Episode 39 and episode 40 of Accidental Tech Podcast go on deep dives into why so much Enterprise software is awful. In short, they’re selling on features to people who don’t have to use it. There’s no incentive make the user interface better, because it won’t move more units. Apple doesn’t get a free pass here, either. By all accounts, their back end for app developers and content creators to get stuff in people’s hands is downright awful. There’s also no incentive to make it better, because it’s clearly not keeping people from putting apps on the store and music on iTunes.

If only this problem were limited to enterprise software and tools for programmers. Apps that add new features because they looks good on a press release, companies getting into “social” because that’s the buzzword of the week [2], trendy redesigns that impede usability, and forcibly integrating unpopular new products into popular old ones, all of these are symptoms of not understanding people. Even worse, it’s thinking of people as eyeballs to monetize or wallets to pry open. Thinking about this problem, I come back to Tab Closed; Didn’t Read. The pattern of obscuring content with subscription boxes and social media buttons is exploiting a specific sort of knowledge about people. It’s a lazy technique that makes product guys think they’re doing something with a measurable benefit while frustrating people. Worse, it’s not a big leap to go from newsletter subscription boxes to popups that pretend to be system dialogs reporting fake system errors. Behaviors like this are common enough that they have a name: Dark Patterns.

Fundamentally, people approach technology from a task-oriented mindset. They sit down at their computer, or take out their smartphone because they want to do something: share their thoughts with their friends, buy a pair of socks, or fling cartoon birds at cartoon pigs. It’s the job of the technology to let them to do that thing they want to do with the least amount of fuss. It’s why iOS is still built around an incredibly simple grid of icons. If you want to share your thoughts with friends or fling cartoon birds around, you just touch. Apple builds its experience around reducing friction. To do such a thing, however, requires a willingness to understand the real human motivations and real human frustrations that come when trying to accomplish a task with technology.

The underlying reason for all of this? Most technology companies haven’t had to live in the consumer space until recently. It wasn’t until the Internet took off in the mid–90s that personal computers took off in the home among ordinary people. By this point, most of the companies in the space had fossilized around a business and design model that focused on business users and the odd hobbyist who wanted to learn how to use a computer for fun. (I was the second type.) It’s the enterprise software problem writ large, and companies are scrambling to learn how normal people think and use computers. Most of them aren’t doing a very good job of it.

  1. Marsh does make a lot of great points in his piece, though I think his criticism of the original gMail interface is a little off the mark. It may not have been pretty, but it was usable as all hell.  ↩

  2. Google+, Ping, and Microsoft’s all come to mind.  ↩