Writing software for non-programmers

is not very easy. As a programmer, you learn to use various pieces of software, like text-editors, compilers, debuggers, profilers, so on and so forth. All these tools are very useful, some are essential, and many of them have a learning curve, you have to invest time into learning the nuances of the particular tool if you want to use it to the maximum potential. Consequently when you are writing software that you will be used by other programmers (even if it is not a programming tool), making the software easy to use is not always the first thing that comes to mind. Let’s solve the problem and then we’ll worry about making it ‘user-friendly’. User interface gets pushed onto the backburner. The UNIX software user space is filled with various command line programs which are very effective in their own right, each with its own host of little options toggled by specifying combinations of letters and words on the command line. Not a problem for us coders, after all, text is what we live in. Not so easy for non-programmers who find the very idea of typing in commands some sort of deep black magic. Hence the rise of “graphical frontends”: point-and-click interfaces that put interaction with these text utilities in the background.

For a while i was of the idea that the GUI was for wimps. If you wanted to harness the real power inside your computer, you had to get down and dirty with the command line. However I’ve since come to realize that the real problem is not one of interface, but of thought style. I’m currently a program that (I hope) will be used by artists and architects. It is text-based and the user needs to type in configuration files. No point and click GUI (yet). I chose to take on the job of writing the front-end: the part of the program that the user would actually interact with. This meant creating a configuration language that would be easy for non-programmers to write. The language needed to describe certain elements and how those elements could be combined. My first thought was to create some sort of CSS clone for element description and something akin to Prolog for combination rules. Now, if I was writing this for programmers, I wouldn’t have given it a second thought. But I was writing software for programmers, I was writing for artists. Since then I’ve changed my language to more like Basic than any other programming language. I’ve tried to make it as close to plain English as possible, with no special symbols except for parentheses. The reason for this is simple: any configuration language, no matter how simple would mean that the artists would have to learn it’s uses. I would rather have them up and running and actually using the tool than learning my arbitrary syntax. By keeping the language as close to English as possible, I’ve tried to minimize the learning curve.

Error messages are another area where I’ve had to keep in mind that my users won’t be programmers. Compilers are notorious for having hard to read error messages. I couldn’t have my config file parser give equally esoteric error messages. Most of my parser is a simple recursive descent parser that just does simple syntactical analysis, however a part of it involves solving a system of linear equations. Once again it was very tempting to have the error messages speak in terms of the underlying logic and math, which to a programmer at least, isn’t very complicated. However, I made the conscious to have the error messages be plain English as well. The user gets a line numbers and a plain English description of what went wrong. By leaving out allusions to the math and logic, I may have made it harder for the user to fix an error in the configuration file, but that’s a risk I’m willing to take for the time being.

Programmers are instinctive tinkerers. We like playing around with things. Even when things are working right, we have a need to get in there and try to make it work faster, better, or just in a different fun way. We adore customization and love extensibility. Simply getting the job done is not enough, we want to find the most elegant, the fastest, the most efficient, the craziest way to do it. Living in our world of programmable text editors, modular IDEs and extensible browsers it’s easy to forget that often people just want software that gets the work done and stays out of their way. They don’t want unlimited power, they just want the damn thing to work.
Exercising this sort of restraint is not easy and it requires a lot of thought. I don’t want to give the user something that will overwhelm them, but at them same time, I don’t want to give them a crippled half-hearted piece of work either. Unfortunately there’s is no way to tell what a user wants or needs before you actually give them something to play with. Our software is at a tipping point: it has a small set of core features which work well, there is room to add much more, but we don’t know what will be essential and what will be extra cruft that no one ever needs. And so we are heading to meet our “clients” next week and hopefully at the end of the meeting we will have a new goal in mind.

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Published by

Shrutarshi Basu

Programmer, writer and engineer, currently working out of Cornell University in Ithaca, New York.

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