An Aside

Excuse me while I have a little rant.

Every day I spend many hours sitting at a computer, working with a number of different bits of software. Most of them I’ve used for a couple of decades, so I’m pretty familiar with them. So I do wonder when software developers decide to change something that previously took a couple of seconds to do into a waste of half an hour or more (or simply something that can no longer be done at all). Call me old fashioned, but changing something that is perfectly slick and functional into a pile of festering donkey vomit doesn’t seem like progress to me.

Today I have lost at least an hour faffing about trying to do something that I used to be able to in a few seconds. Then, immediately after I finally worked out the answer, I found a second change in a second piece of software that was less functional than it used to be. I decided to simply abandon that particular task for today, having lost enough time already.

It’s extremely annoying to say the least as this sort of thing has a real impact on my time and therefore my ability to get stuff done. Of course, it does’t happen every day – it usually waits for deadlines to loom…

I expect the world economy loses billions every year to this sort of frustrating nonsense. Time, after all, is money.

Perhaps some software guru can enlighten me. I’m not worried about specifics, more whether there is some secret maxim in software development that encourages developers to deliberately make life difficult for existing users. I am a pretty experienced user of this stuff and it has happened time and again over the years. It may not actually be deliberate, but it sure looks like it.

I have tried to see this as comparable to a new edition of a familiar game. Some people always get upset when anything is changed. Maybe it’s communications that’s at fault. Perhaps there are brilliant reasons for every change, they just fail to communicate them effectively. That happens in games too. However, there is a fundamental difference here. If I change the way magic works in a tabletop game, then you can still play the game. The rules are still comprehensible. You may not like the change, but it does’t stop you playing the game. With software the changes can, and today have, meant that I simply cannot do my job when I have previously been able to. Not because the features was removed entirely, but because it was relocated¹. Actually, the second issue I had today could be gone for good – I’ve no idea.

It’s especially galling when these changes are labelled as “an improved experience”. Clearly some new use of the word improved that I’m not familiar with.




1: When I say “relocated”, what I mean is entered into the witness protection program, given a new name, extensive cosmetic surgery, and whisked away to deepest Alaska.

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17 Responses to An Aside

  1. puggimer says:

    Ah, the joys of Microsoft! The problem here is that the developers are not actually using their own software, so they really don’t get the full experience of their changes. Just as if you put out a game but never played it. Some of the changes are designed to make it ‘easier’ for people who have never used the software before, but end up making it MUCH harder for experienced people to find what they need (like not having any kind of index in a rulebook).

    Finally, for some companies (both software and miniature) they have to put out new versions every few years in order to keep sales going – but they don’t want to make it easy to just stick with the previous one as the current user base wouldn’t upgrade. So they create new features – some of which, like you are experiencing, are actually worse than before. But it looks new and shiny – so it sells.

    It is in an issue I really see in the Game industry, but also in software. When you have a product that essentially only needs to be bought once – how do you continue to generate sales? CCG’s do this by only allowing the latest few sets – so if you want to be competitive you have to buy the newest cards because your old ones are no longer legal. Some companies do it by completely changing how their software works (and even the format of the files it uses). And some will change an entire product line, dropping many popular products and drastically changing the rules (along with big expensive new updates). All of these are designed to make you want the newer versions, and thus keep sales up.

    To be honest though – what other methods are there to keep up sales for a product (game or software) that you effectively only need to buy once and then can use forever?

    • Matt Price says:

      Forever is a long time: I’ve never bought a piece of software that kept working once the technology had moved on, certainly not without bending over backwards to keep it running. But the sales cycles and software “updates” do seem to move quicker even than technology merits.

    • Quirkworthy says:

      @puggimer what other method to maintain revenue? Very simple – you make a new product. In the world of tech the tech marches on, and every now and again you will genuinely need a new version. I’m fine with that. The car you buy today includes all manner of safety features that were top of the range or non-existent 20 years ago. Things change. However, if a new model Ford came with the hand brake under the back seat it might raise a few eyebrows. That’s what seems to happen in software. It’s not a new feature, it didn’t need changing. It’s just changed to be different. Why don’t they put all that effort into making a different piece of software that does something else instead? Build themselves a whole new market.

      I also read the Microsoft press releases about making it easier for first time users. I thought at the time that it was one of the most cripplingly stupid excuses I’d ever heard. Think about it: existing users have grown slick and efficient with the current system. They know the shortcuts. They know where everything is. They can do their job efficiently. They benefit greatly from things remaining where they were in the previous edition (even if new stuff is added). New users haven’t a clue where anything is, so one place is as good as the next. Also, how many new users are there for a given edition of things like Word, PS, Mac OS? Compared to experienced users? I’d guess the newbies were in a minority. Even if they were not, moving stuff means that instead of a portion of your user base being happy and still efficient, nobody has a clue where anything is and everyone has to learn from scratch.

      Stupid behaviour is not improved by making stupid excuses. I’m looking at you, Microsoft.

      • Maybe it’s cos ‘MS Word 99.5’ has the MS Word title on it, while ‘MS Not-calling-you-Word’ doesn’t have the same -shall we call it illustrious? illustrious- background associated with it.

        • mastertugunegb says:

          It’s bad enough using a program that is “like” a leading program you’ve got a lot of familiarity with, only to spend ages trying to find out what they call something you know the name of in the other program, but no idea how they’ve termed it in the one you’ve chosen to use. Especially in the case of say, using freeware over the expensive things like GIMP instead of Photoshop.

        • Quirkworthy says:

          I tried GIMP. Worth every penny.

  2. A lot of software development, particularly bundles/packages, seem to be less focused on functionality and integration with other applications, but rather about forcing the end user to keep their service contracts in place (out of sheer necessity). See this way too much in the ICT / CRM business where new versions of perfectly functional software keeps getting rolled out as it’s expected to get a new version out every x months due to the size of the consumer basis. Generally it comes down to 6-12 months worth of patching, minor layout differences and some big visual overhauls to make thing look different……………kind of like every FIFA or Madden release ever. A lot of software companies seem to walk that thin line between broken enough to need paid support but just functional enough to keep it out of the realms of dysfunctional.

    Gets even worse when software designers try to get all fancy with overlays, semi-OS application and just getting more of that ‘Apple’ feel into product that are meant to be used by actual people in an office and not some mythical tablet-emo drinking his gluten-free latte in that new, hip coffee shop down the street while having all the time in the world to sort out his newest video editing project.

    What I find particularly annoying is when functionality completely changes location, which has happened to me multiple times when use statistical software…..where stuff is grouped into logical families of operations and techniques, until the developer suddenly decided that we ‘need’ an extra overlay menu that hides about a dozen essential options and adds 5-6 click to everything. Also quite common is for updates to get decent patch notes, while new versions get a completely new manual where you can’t actually find an overview of the changes compared to the previous version.

    ………………..the joys of technology and people 😉

  3. Matt Price says:

    You’re going to post such a provocative post and NOT tell us what this specific change was that caused the fumble?! That’s even MORE provocative!

    (what happened?)

    • Quirkworthy says:

      Much more amusing not to say. And if I get into details then people will try to help with that. I’m more interested in the why of it 😉

      • Z says:

        You’ve already explained it enough for me to take a wild guess, mostly based on my OWN experiences with such changes and how much I hated them and STILL hate them.

        What’s really getting to me are the browsers that are becoming more and more bloated and crash-prone, while at the same time, stuff that I REALLY used a lot, just disappears and there’s NOT reason for it. Problem is of course, there are NO good browsers out there any more that “do it all” while at the same time aren’t massive, bloated pigs.

        And as a developer, I should point out that sometimes it’s the designers that get to say what the changes are and the poor developers are forced to just do it. The big case-in-point here are all the websites that change up every 6 months or so and make a total mess of things. They don’t even have the excuse of revenue stream. They just do it “because it’s cool”, which is geek-speak for “totally gonna ***** you up”. I’m looking at Facebork and of course Kickstarter as prime examples there.

        • Quirkworthy says:

          It’s even more bizarre that people should redesign things that don’t need it when there is no financial incentive. Like you say though, it’s not uncommon.

  4. tornquistd says:

    Assume your issue might be with word processing or spread sheet software. In the distant past I was the one who taught advanced classes on MS Word and EXCEL. Over the years things changed and I was to busy to keep up. One day I sat down with Word to recapture my ability to use advanced features after ten hours I still was not able to do all the things I expect to do. I downloaded Open Office (now libreoffice) the next day and in two hours I was able to use all the advanced features I had on my list. It is not question of cost I just don’t want to waste my life on hunt for the feature or in the case of Word some times the hunt is to turn off a feature you don’t want.

    As a professional I have never released a new version of software that required retraining because why would your customers want that? Eclipse is an IDE I have used a lot because it has a lot of support but is does suffer from the lets make cool sometimes which does make it fancy but slower to use.

  5. Kristian says:

    People who care about usability don’t get to make high-level decisions. People who are good at self marketing do.

    From time to time, Microsoft allows the wrong person to be a manager. This person believes that MS can be ‘cool’ or ‘groovy’ or whatever the kids say these days. You know, like Apple or Facebook? Well, maybe Apple or Facebook five years ago.
    Guess what, Microsoft, you’ll never be ‘cool’. ‘Boring’ business users is all you have. If you give up on ‘mostly harmless but useful’ you’ll lose it all.

    (Reading through the comments I see I haven’t said anything original. Once I get those darn kids off my lawn the rest of you are welcome over for a cup of Horlicks. Time for my nap.)

  6. Graham says:

    This happens a lot in software development for reasons of ego, office-politicing, and salary-justification. Rarely are users actually consulted. The high turnover in the IT industry doesn’t help – there’s nearly always someone new needing to make his mark, whether that mark is justified or not.

    Add in that many consumers are sold on the “cult of the new”, and having something different to justify a new release becomes a major pressure.

    Graham (20 years in software engineering and counting…)

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