Making Software More Human

Would you like your computer to be more like people? Would you prefer the software you use to be more personal and understanding of what you really want to do?

I don’t think anyone would object to that idea. In fact almost all would gladly welcome such software. This is one of the more recent shifts in the way we think about software. All these years we have been using software applications, either on our computers, or on our mobile devices, as means for certain functions. Calculators, word processors and internet browsers, for example, allow us to leverage certain functions namely, calculations, text manipulations and web browsing. There are certain steps you need to follow to accomplish the function and it was up to the user to figure out a way to transform what they had in mind into a specific ability of the software. In recent years, as software has become much more personal and integral to our lives, there is a new way to look at software and what it can do.

What if a software, instead of just showing a feature just for the sake of showing it, figures out the context of what you are trying to do  and then shows only the appropriate options or features? Imagine a text editor that automatically adds bullet points every time you add a list. What if it can wrap text and change the text size as you are adding the text. Its more likely that you edit existing documents than create new ones so why not open the most recent document instead of asking you every time? It tries to figure out your intention and acts accordingly. Take a look at the ‘Ribbon’ interface in MS-Word next time you open it. This is the top most toolbar that shows the tools used most recently and most often by the user. There are so many features and customizable options available in MS-Word, but people only use a fraction of those. Why show the stuff that’s not getting used? It took many years for the MS-Office application team to figure it out but when they did it, they got it right. A software should not force a user to think in terms of software steps. Lots of good features go unnoticed because they don’t have the user’s intention in their design. But when an application does it right, it delights the users.

The ‘Report this photo’ feature in Facebook demonstrates this idea. You must have noticed that there is a link next to every photo in Facebook that says ‘Report this photo’. Any Facebook user who finds a photo offensive in any way can click this link and have it removed from the website. This way of moderating is not feasible for the billion users of Facebook. How do you solve this problem? Just like in the real world, Facebook lets the users resolve the issue among themselves by directly communicating with each other. If the problem escalates then the internal moderators step in. Over 75% of reported photos get resolved among the users themselves. The application understands what the user intends to do and provides the proper function.

A good software allows most of the things that the user wants to do. A great software tries its best to understand its users and change itself to fit their needs. Software from Apple are known for these nifty little things for many years, although some would disagree with that. Companies like Google, Netflix and Amazon also do a pretty good job of it and a lot more IT companies are turning their focus towards customer centric, user experience oriented design for their products. All this means is that the applications of next generation would be a lot more human than we can possibly imagine now.

And that’s a totally awesome.

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I am on a blog-a-day-for-a-year crusade. Keep me motivated with your comments. Or tell me when we would get flying cars.



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