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Too often, a popular consumer app unexpectedly gets worse: Some combination of harder to use, missing features, and slower. At a time in history where software is significantly eating the world, this is nonsensical. It’s also damaging to the lives of the people who depend on these products.

First, a few examples to clarify the kind of thing I’m talking about. These are just the ones I’ve had personal experience with.

iPain · One super-obvious example is the long, sad story of iPhoto and iMovie.

For years after the introduction of iMovie ’08, you could still get and use the ’06 version and lots of people did, because it was simple, straightforward, and the obvious things you needed to do were always within reach. I was using the program back then and since I’m a tech geek updated to the newest and greatest, then was reduced to inchoate screams of rage by ’08. I couldn’t figure out how to do lots of obvious things, everything was klunky. There wasn’t a single dimension along which ’08 was better.

As for iPhoto, I never used it much, but my eighty-something mother did, and took lots of great photos with the Sony RX100 I gave her when I gave up on pocket cams. She’s not geeky but has a Bachelor’s in the sciences and is really smart. At some point they broke iPhoto so she couldn’t figure out how to do anything, and when she asked me for help she had tears in her eyes. I tried to get her fixed up, but she doesn’t take pictures much any more. I miss them.

Economist pain · I was still a Developer Advocate in the Android group when The Economist shipped their app. I thought it had one of the best user experiences ever. You started at the beginning of the current issue, swiped down through an article to the bottom, then swapped to bring the next article in from the right. It remembered where you’d got to, which supports The Economist’s vision of being a weekly newspaper; one pass through and you’re caught up on the world that week. There was always a gesture to get to the Table of Contents, but I found I usually didn’t need it much, just swiped over the things I didn’t care about. I praised it to the skies at the time, and (admittedly) since criticized its “Back” affordance, but that was a minor gripe.

The most recent version has been fancified and crippled. First of all, when you open the app, it doesn’t take you to where you were last reading. It insists on starting with “news of the day” (there are lots of other sites for that stuff) and you have to press “week” to get back into the actual publication. When you do that, even though it knows which articles you’ve read (marking them with a check-mark in the table of contents) it maddeningly doesn’t take you to where you were last. So you have to hunt through the table of contents to get yourself restarted.

And when you get to the bottom of an article, it doesn’t stop, it drops you into some weird bastardized section-specific table of contents thingie. All I want is to flip down then flip right until I get to the damn end of the damn magazine. Why?!

MLB · I’ve used the Roku/MLB combo for years to watch ball games on our big TV. The app has evolved over the years and mostly gotten better. I find things on Roku tend to be a little sluggish, but MLB wasn’t too bad; it’d drop you, pretty quickly, into a screen containing a nice picture of a baseball stadium, then overlay a grid of games that were on; pick the one you want and away you go.

Suddenly, it’s become immensely slower, and apparently is spending that time trying to use some AI voodoo to figure out which game I’d like to watch. After an endless delay, you get live video of the game it thinks you want to watch, with a few other games and menu choices overlaid around the edge. It’s reasonably good at guessing which game I want to watch, but way slower at getting me there than it used to be. When’s it’s (regularly) wrong, there are two (slow) menu transitions to get back to the grid of all the games.

Also, they screwed up the Android Auto app — I find listening to a game a good way to pass the time on the road. It’s always had a flaw in that it tries to guess which game you want to watch and starts playing that — the guesses are laughably bad and I often end up with something like Miami Marlins in Spanish. But, you were one tap away from a nice list of everything on offer.

Recently, the startup screen is trying be smarter, thus much slower, in presenting its guess as to what you might want to hear, with a few others (not all) offered as options. So I have to wait forever for this to manifest then hit a teeny little “More…” target to get the actual list of all the games on offer.

Why does this happen? · It’s obvious. Every high-tech company has people called “Product Managers” (PMs) whose job it is to work with customers and management and engineers to define what products should do. No PM in history has ever said “This seems to be working pretty well, let’s leave it the way it is.” Because that’s not bold. That’s not visionary. That doesn’t get you promoted.

It is the dream of every PM to come up with a bold UX innovation that gets praise, and many believe the gospel that the software is better at figuring out what the customer wants than the customer is. And you get extra points these days for using ML.

Also, any time you make any change to a popular product, you’ve imposed a retraining cost on its users. Unfortunately, in their evaluations, PMs consider the cost of customer retraining time to be zero.

How to fix this? Well, in my days at Amazon Web Services, I saw exactly zero instances of major service releases that, in the opinion of customers, crippled or broke the product. I’m not going to claim that our UX was generally excellent because it wasn’t; the fact that most users were geeks let us somewhat off the hook.

Why no breakage? Because these were Enterprise products, so the number of customers was orders of magnitude smaller than iAnything, so the PM could go talk to them and bounce improvement ideas off them. Customers are pretty good at spotting UX goofs in the making.

The evidence suggests that for mass-market products used by on the order of 107 people, it’s really difficult to predict which changes will be experienced as stupid, broken, and insulting.

Maybe we ought to start promoting PMs who are willing to stand pat for an occasional release or three. Maybe we ought to fire all the consumer-product PMs. Maybe we ought to start including realistic customer-retraining-cost estimates in our product planning process.

We need to stop breaking the software people use. Everyone deserves better.



Contributions

Comment feed for ongoing:Comments feed

From: Rozaya (Aug 08 2021, at 14:36)

With the latest update of IOS, the music app's built-in reorder button slowly makes its way off screen the more you try to scrole to it. Not sure if this is a voiceover thing (I use the native accessability application which apple features on its devices and which reads text on the screen as speach) but it's vary annoying and along with randomly lower quality in the beginnings of tracks I've downloaded, even if I've downloaded them and am not streaming them, has basically forced me to stop using the music app for much of anything. So much for supporting good artests.

On top of that, the reorder button is stupidly small, and I'm never sure which button I'm actually moving around, since they're so small and the jesture recognition is so bad that it thinks I'm touching them, not tap-holding them. It literally took me five tries to reorder one song to a particular spot on a playlist. Apple can do better and did better with IOS 8 or so. And don't even get me started on the removal of 32 bit apps which has resulted in me needing to find a replacement for a musical program called Improvox, which I still haven't found.

Thanks apple.

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From: Robert Waugh (Aug 08 2021, at 17:56)

We worked with a gentleman who coined the joke:

The two hardest things in computer science are cache coherency and naming things.

I’ve over the years added my own variation:

The three hardest things in computer science are cache coherency, naming things, and making something useful usable.

I would say for AWS the console has often been a death ground of unusable stuff that causes unmanaged and opaque side effects, and is a hobby horse for PMs. The APIs and products we produced via PM leadership were generally well ascribed to a customer need, but once you trip over into the land of making that useful stuff usable, all quality of implementation and direction flew out the window.

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From: Dennis Doubleday (Aug 08 2021, at 17:57)

One reason you left out is that PMs are always trying find better ways to monetize. One of those ways is via lock-in to closed environments. iPhoto doesn't want you to export your photos to some other tool you like better, so Apple doesn't make it obvious how to do so.

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From: Rich Sands (Aug 08 2021, at 18:23)

As a former product manager I think you were right about some of this back when I was guilty. But smart companies base product decisions on data, these days, not intuition. A/B tests are easy to run especially on this sort of media-centric app. What if they run the tests and learn that most people prefer to be spoon-fed stuff, and you just aren’t like most people? What if the actual customer for these apps is an ad broker? Maybe they run tests that prove the new approach delivers more bang for the buck to advertisers.

I remember talking to one of the product guys at Etsy awhile back. They had spent a lot of time and money to make the stream of products scroll endlessly. They tested it and it looked and felt great, but sales tanked with it in comparison to paginated product lists. Turns out people could sort of remember that the thing they liked best was around page 4 or 5. They would flip through a lot of stuff until they thought they had “seen enough” to know what was on offer, then go back to their favorite and buy it. Why not just “favorite” it when they saw it the first time? Because they didn’t know it was a favorite until they saw enough to get a feel for everything out there. The endless scroll was unceremoniously dumped, after a big investment. It’s all about the money.

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From: CR Drost (Aug 08 2021, at 21:33)

Interesting post, but I find the solutions lack a sense of revolution. Yes, we blame the project managers and I suppose in theory we should have a world without ubiquitous project management. Key thing to realize there is, we are talking about the health of an app, and keeping it healthy. Should I keep you healthy with a series of unending surgeries? Project managers are a sort of hospital staff, it's not that there's no role for them, it's that there's no ubiquities for them. They need to land on a piece of software that is dying and either break the news to the users that they need to figure out the inheritance—where your data will go next—or get it to a state of recovery and then move on to the next thing. But the usual sort of doctoring is preventative, and the usual development should be too.

But, we are rearranging deck chairs. The software itself has anemia programmed into it by our anemic vision for the future. We are lucky in medicine that God takes care of growing a whole person from a tadpole; in development we are Dr. Frankenstein.

Gamemakers know the grander vision these days—modding. Guess what, modders usually do not have a university education. Everyday people can program Excel and they could program HyperCard back in the day. Go back to The Economist, how much time are you wasting in the new app simply because you can’t amend it to start on the right screen or go to the next article? If we can get writing that mod down to 10 or 15 minutes, you will just write the thing. Even if we get it longer, you might not write the thing, but maybe some enthusiast will, and you can maybe download it from an in-app store.

The GPL is the most hamfisted way to do this, perhaps that is the anemia’s cause—because a world of “modder’s paradise” is the FSF’s long vision of free software. If there's a menu I should be able to hide the five elements that I never use and add three buttons that will save me hours. If there is a big I shouldn't have to wait for you to fix it. I should be the ultimate authority on what software runs on my hardware, and I should be able to change anything: this is modder’s milk.

But we don't want it to be arcane licenses and us computer-wizard boffins. The rich future that we are missing out on, is one where your granny can have her iPhotos just the way she wants it, because the interface to make it so is no more complex than the original photo app.

And if we get there, we may find that our software really does grow without us, the user community just constantly throws new ideas at us, and we only have to be benevolent dictators: yes this sounds good; that looks okay but I would like to re-implement it for a security reasons or whatever; that thing is a strong no-go, you can use it but it’s too dangerous for me to put it in the mainline distribution. And so then we really are the doctors of the software rather than the gods of it.

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From: David (Aug 08 2021, at 22:48)

The Economist left their "legacy" app around in the Play Store for *months* because of the persistent negative feedback about the new app.

Unfortunately, it seems like this was more of a "long deprecation while we don't fix the issues with the new version" rather than a "long deprecation while we fix the issues with the new version," and they're now aggressively nudging users off the old app.

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From: Roope (Aug 08 2021, at 23:36)

Jonathan Blow has an entertaining talk about this subject:

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZSRHeXYDLko

"Preventing the Collapse of Civilization / Jonathan Blow (Thekla, Inc)"

One great example is also the recent debacle around Microsoft's new and shiny terminal and how slow it is:

https://github.com/microsoft/terminal/issues/10362

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=hxM8QmyZXtg

"[EPILEPSY WARNING] How fast should an unoptimized terminal run?"

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=99dKzubvpKE

"Refterm v2 - Resource usage, binary splat, glyph sizing, and more"

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From: koushik (Aug 09 2021, at 03:28)

Succinctly put on the difference between enterprise/consumer software. Would you consider the Amazon Kindle's UX a victim of the same pattern? Do the AWS and Kindle group's PMs share notes?

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From: Michael Tapp (Aug 09 2021, at 07:27)

you might be right about how updating some apps and software make them sometimes dummy and more hard to use , but this is a critical part of evolving and keep the wheel turning on.

may we still crawling in AI and ML and every developer out their trying to implement those two in their apps and products coz either they think it's cool or coz of the potential those two have on our lives .. you can consider us in a transaction era .. everything won't be prefect while we are trying till we master it

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From: Paul Boddie (Aug 09 2021, at 10:45)

I am reliably informed by someone who worked at quite a high level for a very large and well-known corporation that when a product gets a shiny new rebranding for no good reason, often making it look worse (half-baked logo, painful colours, poor typography and layout), it is because the product has someone new in the "Brand Manager" role who wishes to make their mark. That sounds a lot like your "Product Manager" role right there.

There are other factors. One is the surveillance economy (attested to by another commentator here who pleads the "data-driven" excuse) where "perving" on the users and dreaming about monetisation opportunities is probably baked into all these jobs now, ethics be damned. The other is the infantilisation of user interfaces, the removal of controls, flexibility, text!

While it was once a dream that computers would second-guess the users and make everything "seamless", instead we have interfaces where none of the navigations options is the one we want, even the stupid gestures (thank you Apple) don't help. Instead of having an articulate butler to do the heavy lifting, one is left resisting the misdeeds of some kind of virtual moron.

And you cannot complain about any of this. There are too many "designers" who evidently harbour aspirations to work for Apple, who have little idea of the history of user interfaces and who think copying often-dubious things from Apple's hall of fame (and/or Microsoft's latest product) is the height of their craft. Contradict them with historical facts or observations about the mess they have made and they all tend to play the delicate genius as they disempower and torment their users.

And let us not get started on how the orders of magnitude increase in computing power over the decades has been wasted by such nonsense, let alone the impact running all those data centres that service all that nonsense is having on the climate.

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From: Rage Cage (Aug 09 2021, at 20:44)

Google still is the best interface. One text box in the middle of the page.

But all the examples you site are right on the money.

Another example of crap redesigns is reddit. And the all-time flameout of Digg, wow did they screw the pooch.

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From: Nelson (Aug 10 2021, at 08:37)

Your comment about your mother's frustration reminds me of an 80ish year old friend who has regular traumatic struggles with WordPress.com. It keeps changing and he has no interest in learning yet another new UI. It's not that the product is getting worse. It's just the change itself has a cost.

The Economist app degradation really frustrates me. When I first started using it (on an iPad) it had this beautiful multicolumn layout that looked just like the print publication. They abandoned that a few years ago so now all the lines of text are way too wide on a tablet. And the usability stuff you talk about, like remembering your place. They did make one part "better" though, it's much more aggressive about showing the same stupid full page ad for a cloud hosting service every time I run it. Better for their revenue, that is.

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From: William Woody (Aug 11 2021, at 12:24)

Can I take your post, wrap it around a baseball bat, and hit the graphic designers who think they're UX designers I've worked with in the past?

Okay, I kid; I kid.

Sorta...

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From: Yoda (Aug 11 2021, at 12:55)

Additional case in point: Firefox/Android UX update debacle from a year ago

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From: Leif Jacobson (Aug 11 2021, at 13:03)

I think we've missed the point. Making users scroll through more of the app, revisit the table of contents, and suffer limits of the predictive engine increases the AMOUNT OF CONTENT users are exposed to and AMOUNT OF AD REVENUE that comes with it. The article does nail it : "PMs work with customers and management to prioritize features". The customers are the advertisers and management wants to create engagement and ad revenue. These apps aren't free but they mostly are funded by ads. Why blame the PM? Now, doing this well and in a less irritating fashion is valid.

As a PM, I can guarantee you I don't prioritize changes just because I can. I have so many features I could do, I have to heavily prioritize. The fact that THESE changes went to the top of priority tells you they align with customers and management

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From: Alex (Aug 11 2021, at 13:24)

Heck, just look at this page: https://groups.google.com/g/golang-dev

More than half of the space is taken by useless and blocks. The left block can be hidden, but it doesn't persist.

How the heck such abominations happen?

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From: Ward Willats (Aug 11 2021, at 17:24)

Oh, and please tell the people at EVERNOTE to STOP with the updates! Each release more bloated and confusing than the last -- and they come every few days!

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From: CL (Aug 11 2021, at 18:09)

For the record, I don't believe that "this is the only way we can figure out to cram more ads into the users' eyeballs" is a sufficient justification for any of this.

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From: David Pierson (Aug 11 2021, at 20:19)

Great article, absolutely spot on. I wonder how many of us had thought "it must just be me" that finds these changes regressive.

Ward Willats is absolutely right with his example of Evernote. I've gone back to v6. I have had a paid subscription for many years. The v7 redesign is a joke, and a bad one.

Saw the same ting with a lovely time recording app called Grindstone. V2 was perfect, but they brought out v3 which was extremely slow, and that seemed to kill their business.

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From: Toby Poynder (Aug 12 2021, at 01:38)

The Register has a lovely article about this sort of thing: https://www.theregister.com/2017/01/24/boring_vim_beats_exciting_browsers/

I have often thought that if UX designers got involved with car design they would have you steering with rudder pedals and braking with a lever "because the focus group said this was more intuitive".

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From: Michael Tapp (Aug 15 2021, at 03:08)

I think some companies noticed this kind of evolving complications in their app's design and started to offer lite versions of their apps that are not only lighter in size but also much simpler in design and contain the basic functions without any complications .. most social apps have a lite version

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From: g (Aug 15 2021, at 10:41)

Robert, to me the canonical version of that joke goes: The two hardest things in computer science are cache coherency, naming things, and off-by-one errors.

(Though it should really be "software development" or "programming" or something rather than "computer science".)

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From: pozmu (Aug 15 2021, at 14:01)

Few years ago mobile apps were something new, and every company tried to make their app to be the best, now mobile apps are standard and have much more users, so companies try to milk them as much as they can.

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