Being Selfish Jamis 12 Mar 2005

16 comments Latest by ronny

There's a paper I was pointed at some time ago, called "The Selfish Class", describing a series of patterns (everything's a pattern these days, right?) that attempt to define why some software succeeds, and some software fails. It applies the ideas of Darwinism to software development, and it is surprising how many of the concepts fit.

The paper is biased towards software that is targetted for use by programmers, but with a little imagination it can be applied just as effectively to more general software applications, like Basecamp. In particular, I think applications like Basecamp and Ta-da Lists succeed (in part) because of their adherence to Works out of the Box, Low Surface-to-Volume Ratio, Gentle Learning Curve, and First One's Free.

We've all worked with software that violates one or more of these patterns, though. From the software development world you have text editors like Vim and Emacs, both of which sport anything but a Gentle Learning Curve. Operating systems like Unix and Linux don't try too hard on the Low Surface-to-Volume Ratio pattern. Yet they flourish anyway!

Still, for every product that succeeds in spite of a less-than-ideal UI, how many fail? And how about the reverse?

16 comments (comments are closed)

Aaron 12 Mar 05

I think eBay is the best example of the sheer power of the product bashing through the horrible interface. eBay should fail on its interface alone, but the product is so compelling that its become one of the most successful internet companies ever.

Chris Vincent 12 Mar 05

Yes, sometimes the appeal of the product or its lack of an alternative can allow software which breaks all of the rules to succeed. Of course eBay is successful despite a pretty bad interface; it was the first to the market, and managed to use that fact to gain a large base of users. You could refuse to use eBay because it’s less than optimal, but where else would you go that would have the same sheer volume of items to choose from and people to sell to?

On the reverse, sometimes a software’s learning curve is a necessary result of its power. Open-endedness and efficiency do not always go hand-in-hand with ease-of-use, but that’s okay. Some users will want one more than the other. In this case, it’s all about knowing your target audience and their needs.

Steve, from Co, FLA and now RDU 12 Mar 05

eBay was not first to market, it was more like 4th or 5th. It was the community of user feedback/ranking that made eBay a huge force and the largest auction site.

Jonny Roader 13 Mar 05

Can’t say I’ve ever had any problems with Ebay’s interface. It’s ridiculously easy to use and get round.

Thomas Baker 13 Mar 05

eBay’s interface is clunky (I seem to sign in about every three clicks - why?) But the “URL usability” has improved greatly in the latest redesign.<search term> and<search term> taking you straight to where they should as well as the long overdue subdomain.

Pedro 13 Mar 05

Excelent link, Jamis. Nice reading you too here on svn, programming will be a nice addon to the content here.

I’m reading “The Selfish Class” and it looks excelent: meme is a beautiful concept and building things on top of it is a deep and imersive job.

Jamie 13 Mar 05

Jamis, great link! There are also other factors that determine the success of a software product (business decisions, marketing, etc.). After all, we’d all be using Macs and OS X now if that weren’t the case. :P

JonB 14 Mar 05

The success of a website or application is influenced by designers, investors, marketers etc. but ultimately success is decided by end users.

Maybe a reason why some software/websites succeed in spite of the their interface flaws is because of their usefulness, rather than their UI quality/usability. In these situations, users are so motivated to achieve tasks and reap the benefits (e.g. sell an item on Ebay), that their determination overcomes the hard work and irritations along the way. In a situation where users generally have a lower motivation level (e.g. paying a phone bill online), usability has to get people through the process as painlessly as possible.

In an ideal world, both usefulness and usability should be maximised and harmonised. In Ebay’s world, perhaps the phenomenal success of such a strong, user-focused business idea means that they are somewhat complacent about usability details.

Incidentally, I didn’t appreciate how awkward Ebay can be until I watched how many hoops my less-web-savvy-than-me girlfriend has to jump through when she is searching, browsing, signing in, managing her account etc. However, she has learned some reliable (but inefficient) ways of using the browser/website to acheive her goals.

Even more revealing was when I had to show her father how to use Ebay, a few days after he started to use a computer or the Internet for the first time ever (a real test of my empathy skills!). This experience reminded me how confusing and inconsistent even some of the most basic interface metaphors can be for a total novice. For example, I said to him, “When you move the pointer over anything you can click on, the pointer turns into a hand symbol to show it’s clickable.” That made a lot of sense, until he needed to click on a form button. Guess what happened? He hesitated because there was no hand cursor! Anyway, despite all the confusion and ‘fear of breaking something’, he has (unfairly) accepted Ebay’s UI faults as his own, and does his best to get around - because he wants the benefit.

In both cases, the amount of thinking my girlfriend and her father have to do to stay in control of Ebay means that they are spending less time shopping.

A lot depends on the competition, but I guess you are more likely to succeed with a useful design that has a less-than-ideal UI, but not the reverse.

kingbenny 14 Mar 05

Very cool paper. I would think the argument could be made, though, that pure Unix (whatever that means anymore) is actually a pretty small, simple external interface (command-line), and thus has a low surface/volume ratio.

Michael Spina 14 Mar 05

…he has (unfairly) accepted Ebay’s UI faults as his own

A very good point. Good software should make you feel better about yourself, in addition to letting you get something accomplished.

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