Sync’ up! … without getting drained

may 3

Sowell on software

Twenty years ago, the economist Thomas Sowell wrote a short critique on consumer-facing technology such as printers and software. It’s interesting to pick away at it post Internet bubble, post web 2.0, and see where things have improved, stagnated, or gotten worse. The original syndicated column can be read here.


Starting off, Sowell’s general sentiment about using technology isn’t a rosy one:

[I]t is painfully obvious that no serious effort was made by many of the people who produce and sell computers or software to put themselves in the position of the customer.

Thankfully, In the last twenty years, designers have infiltrated tech firms to a degree where the user is a priority, not just an afterthought when it comes to software.

Take the landing page or Tumblr, for example. With slick UX and engaging images, this tech product is on par with the attractiveness that typically accompanies mainstream products.


Unfortunately, Sowell points to design issues that remain unaddressed twenty years later:

Even when the subject is quite simple, the biggest problem is that computer software instructions do not bother to use plain English.

Within software, quite a bit of language is communicated from the engineer to the customer. It’s still not uncommon to have forms that pass along error codes, and in other places, the tone in the language is obviously engineer-speak.

I’d vote that this is an area that has room to improve.


It’s almost amusing to see how often the issue of feature-creep bothers some:

Although I bought the latest, state-of-the-art Pentium 200 MMX computer, it takes longer to boot up than my much slower old 486 computer, because the newest operating system is so loaded down with extra stuff, most of which I will never use.

There’s a funny antidote from Joe Armstrong, one of the creators of the Erlang programming language, that compares the power of this & that computer over the years, relative to the then incredible Cray-1 supercomputer from decades ago. By his numbers, our laptops should be booting in ~60 milliseconds. Obviously, something has gone dreadfully wrong.

Bells & whistles have a propensity to accompany software upgrades, including languages and OSs. This is an area that was bad in 1997, and has gotten steadily worse over the last two decades.


Finally, when it comes to making software easy to interact with, Sowell goes on to say the following:

My suspicion is that the kinds of people who predominate in the computer industry are just not very good at putting themselves in other people’s places. If so, perhaps they should hire a few people who are not nerds, but who know a little bit about computers and a lot about how to explain things.

Ouch. Well, the landscape of developers has certainly diversified when it comes to software development. My feeling is that there are more liberal-arts minded coders working today, than ever before.

For example, it’s not uncommon to find full-stack developers coming from a design background now, thanks to improving tools & communities that accompany them.

So, while it’s difficult to say whether the average software product is more user-friendly now than in 1997, I’d estimate that at very least, within organizations, there’s at least people in place who strive for a better user experience within their products.