It’s the experience, stupid

People think software is becoming more frustrating because the world has become more complex.

This is false. Software is worse because development has been drastically accelerated. The shortened cycles leave little or no time for best design practices that ensure that real people experience the updates as useful and usable. The QA testing often suffers, too and software is released with major bugs. And this is all by design. But don’t take my word for it. The following passage comes from page 4 of the Bible of this development approach, The Lean Startup by Eric Ries:

I’m a cofounder and chief technology officer of this company, which is called IMVU. At this point in our careers, my cofounders and I are determined to make new mistakes. We do everything wrong: instead of spending years perfecting our technology, we build a minimum viable product, an early product that is terrible, full of bugs and crash-your-computer-yes-really stability problems. Then we ship it to customers way before it’s ready. And we charge money for it. After securing initial customers, we change the product constantly — much too fast by traditional standards — shipping new versions of our product dozens of times every single day. We really did have customers in those early days — true visionary early adopters — and we often talked to them and asked for their feedback. But we emphatically did not do what they said. We viewed their input as only one source of information about our product and overall vision. In fact, we were much more likely to run experiments on our customers than we were to cater to their whims.

Traditional business thinking says that this approach shouldn’t work but it does and you don’t have to take my word for it. As you’ll see throughout this book, the approach we pioneered at IMVU has become the basis for a new movement of entrepreneurs around the world. It builds on many previous management and product development ideas, including lean manufacturing, design thinking, customer development, and agile development. It represents a new approach to creating continuous innovation. It’s called the Lean Startup.

If you read the book, it becomes abundantly clear that Ries thinks very much in terms of engineered things: software, organizations, innovations. And what he wants to do with those things is to improve them as rapidly as possible, through trial and error. This makes sense, given his background.

What Ries fails to consider, though, is the experience real people are having while advancing his project of continuous innovation. He is not thinking about what it is like for a real person to try to do something important with his latest “terrible, full of bugs and crash-your-computer” release. And he is certainly not thinking about what it is like to live in a world where most software is developed this this way, and consequently is in a stage of disrepair and renovation all the time. The “fail fast” trials of innovators translate directly into our own failures to get stuff done with reasonable effort because our tools never work like we expect.

And imagine: this is thought of as progress in the industry. In the 90s and early 2000s the software industry was progressing in a different direction. More and more people were talking about designing experiences. What was meant by experience is that when we design, our ultimate product is not the object we are engineering but the subjective experiences people when they use it. But somewhere along the way, experience became a cool euphemism for “thing” with no reference whatsoever to real people or the experiences they have. People now work on their “experiences” and it doesn’t cross their mind to wonder how you will experience what they’re doing.

So, the next time you go to open some software and cannot figure out how to use it anymore, or when software updates and it crashes on you, or feel a pit in your stomach when you see a dozen app updates — just know that the owner and investors in charge of this software probably read this book and thought it sounded like a pretty great idea.

One day when we will look back at this time in our history, maybe our minds will boggle that the folly of this approach wasn’t obvious to everyone. But for now, we’re just bobbing in this boiling broth, singing “ribbit”, and blaming technological progress and ourselves for what is in fact an industry-wide brain fart.

Luckily, I got out of UX (user experience) just before it was taken over by Lean Startup, and designers were demoted to front-end prettifiers and design researchers were pushed to the margins of the process, if not out of it altogether. I have no professional skin in this game. But as a user, I do still have quite a bit at stake. I would love to spread my enlightened frustration as far as possible.

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