Software Love

How many software and web applications do you love?

I mean really love. I mean love like love for your favorite song or pet. You love it because it’s perfect the way it is and there’s nothing that could ever replace it. The kind of love that everyone knows about because you keep telling other people to use it too.

I mean the kind of software love that makes you happy when you use it. Not “my first cigarette of the morning to sate my addiction” happy. I mean happy like heart flutters that you get anxiously waiting for the app to load. It’s the kind of happiness that comes from realizing that you’ve used it for hours but you didn’t notice the lost time because you were having so much fun.

I honestly can’t think of any applications that I love. One reason is because I’m forced to use many applications that I hate. That’s not love; that’s suffering. MS Outlook — I mean you. It’s no fun to be forced to do anything, especially being forced to use a crappy application.

And I definitely don’t mean the love of an experience versus the love of an application. Teens don’t love MySpace or Facebook. They love the interactions and connections that those sites facilitate (and they don’t necessarily love that either). That’s not true love; that’s playground love. That’s why Friendster, once loved by millions, was displaced in time by MySpace. And that’s why MySpace and Facebook will be replaced by the next new .com in time.

Why don’t we love the software we use?

We don’t love the software we use because we’ve become accustomed to mediocrity. By “we” I mean both application developers and application users. The developers settle for mediocre applications by removing the best and most desired features, not testing with their users, and releasing applications with known bugs and useless error messages.

When confronted, developers handwave the problems away. “It works for me.” “It was designed to work like that.” “I know what our users want.” If the developers felt the pain that their users feel, maybe they would produce better software.

Users settle for mediocre applications by buying them, tolerating them, and not demanding more. There’s an old joke about what would happen if MS Windows was a car — how the car would break down all the time. Users accept the fact that their applications will have errors. And because (most) software errors aren’t life threatening (compared to errors with your car), there’s no mass revolt in the populace to demand better software.

But not all software is buggy; sometimes it’s simply unusable. You enter a command and it does something completely unexpected. You can never remember where the buttons are. It’s not your fault. However, most folks aren’t motivated to speak out about these problems. And even if you do speak out, why should they change it just for you?

Every hindrance further entrenches developer and user in their points of view. From the developer point of view, all users are stupid. From the user point of view, all applications are crap. So from the first moment that someone sits down with your application, you have to work that much harder to get over the users’ initial application pessimism.

It doesn’t have to be like this. In fact, it isn’t always like this. There’s only one application that I’ve ever heard someone say they love. That app is Flickr.

Why does Flickr succeed where others fail? Because it’s fun. And easy to use. Few (if any?) problems. It’s a pretty simple formula. Other app makers should try to understand the phenomenon of Flickr before they start their own application development.

There’s a similar reason why Apple products are so popular. It’s because they’re designed. By people with skills in designing things. Apple’s designs aren’t perfect. But their designs stand out because they design their products (unlike the rest of the computer industry which doesn’t design their products at all).

It doesn’t have to be like this because we know the best methods for creating easy to use, fun, well designed, bug free applications. Most people don’t follow those methods though. The result is another crappy application; it makes good apps like Flickr or good designs like Apple’s stand far out from the rest of the pack.

What’s your lesson from this? You can get people to love your software. You just need to put the time and effort into it. Users know crap software from the good stuff.

If your stuff is crap, don’t be surprised when your users flee when a marginally better competitor surfaces. Your users might not love the new application more than yours. But without love for your application, there’s no reason for them to stick around when something — anything — better comes along.

2 Replies to “Software Love”

  1. Nothing says lovin’ like a video game. I don’t mean these new fangled thingies like Halo. Similar to your Friendster, MySpace argument. These games come and go with the next high production value shooter or even just the next game in series. There are certain games that captured the imagination of our generation since they were in the sweet spot of gaming. Not too much competition, very little processing power, limited graphics capabilities. Games like Bomberman, Super Mario Bros. Torment.
    However, these games (the software) isn’t really a fair comparison. Yes, it’s designed to be engaging, but the context in which you interact with the software is for fun & entertainment. If I’m using a PowerBook to do my taxes, I’m not going to enjoy it any better than doing it on a PC.
    At the end of the day, you’re right, something that is designed to have a positive emotional effect will be better than something that didn’t even take emotions into consideration.

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