Monday, January 26, 2015

Why do we treat customers like users

It was a big week in technology.  Microsoft had a massive press conference to promote its new operating system.  E3 had a big technological breakthrough which will lead to new products which I will share more about in a later blog.  Finally, there was the state of the Union address which almost devolved into playground insults.  It was not a bad week.   What struck me most about the week was a tweet from Yahoo technology critic David Pogue he said the following,

The over-caffeinated pundit from Yahoo is right there is something wrong with software engineers because we refer to our customers and consumers as if they are drug addicts instead of full partners in the software experience.  This week I want to talk about that.

The term “user” has been around as long as I have been working as a software developer.  My suspicion is that I can trace its origins back to the early days of corporate computing.  Large Mainframe and AS/400 systems housed tremendous amounts of data centrally and the “operators” of these systems the network administrators and programmers allowed “users” to run programs to gather data.  Ever since the 1960’s, the term has stuck and I feel it poisons the relationship between those who make software and those who use it.

Since the first moon landings, the powerful computers which took us to another world can now conveniently fit into a contemporary smart phone.  Instead of mainframe systems, we have the internet and cloud based computing.  In addition, an entire generation has grown up swimming in technology.  Sadly the habits and attitudes have struggled to catch up.  Daily, I see developers use the term “users” to refer to the people who depend on the software we create.  Users are stupid, selfish, clueless, and careless in equal degrees and they are the bane of the life of a software engineer because they are constantly breaking their creations.

I understand this feeling.  I spend hours working on software trying to get it to work correctly and then someone comes along and breaks it with little or no effort.  It is part of the sense of pride and skill developers have which allow us too figure out how to bend technology to our will. When someone dismissively breaks that technology, it creates a spiral of rage inside me which is difficult for me to explain.  That software is my “baby” and for someone else to call it defective or ugly is a serious insult.

What we do not talk about is that the “users” are really not trying to break our creations or insult our intelligence.  They just want things which work.  They do not plug in a lamp worrying about amperage or voltage.  They just want to plug in a lamp and have it light the room.  Software is supposed to solve problems and help make the day go easier and faster.  They should not have to worry about out of memory exceptions or properly filling out forms.  They just need to use the software on their computer, mobile device and tablet.

They are not users of software; they are consumers and customers.  Those of us in the software profession need to remember that and treat these people accordingly.

Until next time.