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Friday, 26 July 2013

The usability recession

Back in the 80's, life for technophiles was pretty frustrating.  Just loading a game on a home computer such as a ZX Spectrum or Commodore 64 would take around 5 minutes.  Games were stored on cassette tapes, and loading would occasionally crash part way through, forcing the frustrated gamer to rewind the cassette and start again.

With the affordability of disks (floppy and hard) things got a lot better in the 90's.  But, as fast as old frustrations disappeared, new ones appeared.

Faster computers, more memory and larger storage meant more complex systems; and more complex a system, more frequently it would crash. 

Word processors would freeze, printers would seize and operating systems core-dump sometimes several times a day.  Still today I save documents through habit learnt in the 90's after every paragraph written - despite my PC or word processor not crashing once in around 2 years.

Things did get better.  Windows 98 fixed many of the bugs in Windows 95, and by the time Windows XP appeared I had a computer that did pretty much everything I wanted it do to.

Over a decade later and technology has got a hell of a lot smarter.  Portable devices, smart TVs, streaming movies. 

We should be basking in mankind's achievements in science, technology and engineering...

Yet today, nothing bloody works any more! 

Well, lots of things do work, but suddenly everything just feels difficult again.

The explosion of devices and operating systems has lead to an implosion of compatibility and a fragmentation of refinement. 

When one manufacturer fixes an Android bug on one model of phone or tablet it's pot luck as to whether they'll apply the same fix to the same bug on other models. 

As different manufacturers deal with a different subset of issues the customer is left running a gauntlet of crashy, bloaty software.  Of particular note is the agonisingly unusable "PC sync/upgrade" software shipped with mobile devices.

I still can't find a decent word processor for my Asus TF300 tablet - like one that allows me to type words that remain in the same order typed, with spelling mistakes underlined and where the save button works 100% of the time it is used; the browser crashes occasionally when typing email - basic stuff.

And service providers are doing their best to stop me wanting to use their service.  Whilst Facebook works fine on my powerful desktop machine, it can crash the browser on some of my computers - as, incidentally, can loading the front page of the Independent.

Whilst mobile Facebook works reasonably well for posting a picture, half the features are missing.

Twitter have done their best to make me never want to tweet again.  They practically killed my interface of choice - TweetDeck. 

TweetDeck used to be a relatively simple app that helped manage multiple streams.  Twitter, after all, is about streams of short bursts of information - too much information to be consumed in the traditional, linear, way.  Instead one dips in and out.  Set a search for my home town to see what people are saying, check for the latest super-injunction scandals, etc.

The original software did 2 things well.  It allowed the user to flick through incoming tweets, and it allowed the user to tweet - with a spell check and everything.  Plus - particularly applicable to mobile - it had a nifty alert feature so you could see from your phone's status bar if someone was tweeting at you.

Now all that is gone.  The surviving desktop app is 3rd rate, can't even get a spell check to work, and the mobile versions have been officially killed - not just discontinued but disconnected at source.

And don't even get me started on mobile phones.  Even the model names are unfathomable: does the HTC One support 4G? Only the HTC One 4G, apparently. What about the HTC One X? Or the One XL?  The HTC One 4G LTE has a full-HD screen (1920x1080 pixels - on a phone!) whilst the HTC One XL 4G has only 720p HD screen.

What is the Google Nexus? Don't even go there if you're looking for clarity..  The "Google Nexus S" could be any one of four phones, of which only the SPH-D720 has 4G capability.

And 4G capability is dependent on the country and the operator.  Whilst the iPhone 5 works on the UK's EE 4G network, it won't work on some 4G networks being launched by rival operators because of the frequency bands being used.

On the subject of phones, bad things happen to my address book each time I change handset. 

Twice I got duplicates of my contacts; now I have four entries for everybody.  And, when I once tried to sync my address book to the NSA's Google's servers, they helpfully added around 350 people I had in various circles to my phone address book.  So now I have Mum, Dad, Wife, plus 350 people I've never met.

Practically everything, from watching Netflix on your smart TV (depending on the manufacturer) to transferring and editing video from your camera, to tweeting or updating your contact list has gotten difficult of late.

Perhaps, with the explosion of data, of devices, of services, and of uses, the focus on usability has been lost. 

Whilst things got better - a lot better - in terms of usefulness and usability each decade for the last 30 years, perhaps we've entered a usability recession.

@JamesFirth

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