User influence not only good

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User influence on software design may give less good software

By Jacob Palme, e-mail, at the research group for CMC (Computer Mediated Communication), which is a part of the K2Lab laboratory at the DSV university department. Last revision: 27 September 1999.

Of course, user influence on software design is useful and good. This document is in no way intended to say that user influence on software design is bad or should not be used. One should however be aware, that user influence on software design can have not only positive but also negative effects on the quality of the software. Here is an explanation why.

  • The successes of human society is based on the flexibility of humans and their willingness to adapt their activities to different circumstances.
  • Humans are most happy and productive if they can influence their living environment and contribute to solving problems together.
  • Laws and regulation are a form of communication between humans. They are in reality only guidelines, people have to adapt to varying circumstances and interpret and apply the rules with understanding and human compassion. If everyone had to adhere 100 % to all laws and regulations, human societies would not work any more.
  • This is usually no problem when the laws and regulations are written on paper. But if the laws and regulations are programmed into computers, so that the computers control what is allowed and not allowed, serious problems will often occur. In the best case, people will only be unhappy and unproductive, in the worst case, major catastrophs can occur.
  • Computer software must be designed to allow flexibility and human choice. Laws and regulations should be interpreted by humans, not by machines.
  • Making the software more complex, to include in it more different special handling of special circumstances, will often only make it worse. Instead of complex software, software should be flexible and open-ended.
  • There is a human tendency when designing software to want to include in it "proper procedure" and "experience how things should be done". This tendency can easily produce unusable or unsuitable software.
  • If a software grows during several years in close interaction with its users, then there is a risk that the software becomes very complex in a non-logical way. This is no problem for the existing users, because they grow with the software. But it may make the software difficult to use for new users. The old users become a kind of sacred priesthood, the only people who really understands and can manage the software. To avoid this problem, software should be influenced by needs of new users, not only by the requests coming from experienced users.
  • User influence, in the form of user groups which discuss and propose how the software should work, need not help with this problem. In fact, my experience is that users in such user groups often are more eager to use the computer to enforce "correct behaviour".
  • Possible exception: Certain security rules which humans tend to forget if they are not enforced by technical means.

Overhead slides describing this in more detail in Adobe Acrobat format
Can Computers Decide what is Right and Wrong? in Adobe Acrobat format in HTML format
Interactive Software for Humans in Adobe Acrobat format in HTML format
Software Design - A Parable in Adobe Acrobat format in HTML format

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More on computer-mediated communcation.