Ben Borgers

Un-figure-out-able Software

March 26, 2022

I don’t really remember a time before smartphones and the internet. I grew up completely inside that world, and it’s completely intuitive to me. How to quickly scan and navigate buttons; when to refresh a website or restart an app; how to bounce between different open tabs in a browser.

But when I spend some time with (ahem) older individuals who haven’t grown up with this lifelong exposure to modern apps and ways that things work, I start to see things through a different lens.

So often, I do things in software without realizing why. It just feels like clicking that button or checking that page was the right thing to do to.

But explaining why I did something, or even how to replicate it? Suddenly I see how difficult software is to navigate.

For example, how are you going to explain to someone that there are two microphone buttons in iMessage, and that one transcribes your voice into text while the other sends a raw audio recording?

It’s completely second-nature to a lot of people, but seeing someone else get confused by this makes perfect sense. How the heck is someone supposed to know how to work this?

Or we can take a look at Google Calendar. How would you subscribe to someone else’s calendar from this screen? And how is someone who hasn’t been immersed in software interfaces for years supposed to figure it out?

And lastly, the most acute example that comes to mind from the past week: after you’ve entered the email address of a calendar you’re like to subscribe to, how do you add this calendar?

The answer: you press enter. It might seem straightforward for some people, but for other people it’s a roadblock. And seriously? There’s no button to do something on this page?

Also, once you hit enter, there’s no loading indicator at all. The page just does nothing for a couple seconds, making you think that it’s broken, before zipping you to another page.

There’s examples of this everywhere. The software around us is just not easy to use. It’s designed and built by people kinda like me, who are fully immersed in this world and have been for a long time.

But unfortunately, I don’t know if there’s a way to design software so that everybody can figure out how to use it. iPhones used to have home buttons, and now you swipe with different intensities on a line at the bottom of the screen to control your iPhone. Try explaining that to someone for the first time.

The point being: we might already be too far ahead to make things figure-out-able for those who didn’t come along for the ride.