Categories
Quality The Business of Software

Don’t piss off your users by suddenly changing your UI

By Jim Grey (about)

Delivering software on the Web is great. Especially with continuous delivery, we can deliver changes large and small anytime we want. And then we can get quick feedback from our users and the market, adjust the software accordingly, and push those updates fast, too. It’s utopia and the Holy Grail rolled into one!

Except that users are not very excited when we change things. They want software to stay as it is. Well, mostly: they want us to fix the bugs that affect them, of course, or even to add this or that little feature. But please, they plead, don’t make it work differently than it does now.

Meanwhile, we face various pressures. Markets shift; new needs emerge and old needs become less important. Technologies shift; old frameworks become outdated, new frameworks enable us to keep pace. Today everything has to not only work on mobile, but feel native to mobile — and all run on a single codebase. This is shifting product direction across our industry.

That’s the backdrop against which WordPress, the content engine behind one out of every four Web sites, rolled out a new editor last week. It was part of a complete rewrite of all of WordPress.com. Their old technologies just couldn’t stretch to where the world was moving. So they threw it out and started from scratch. Their new editor is fast — fast! — and works fluidly, while looking great both in my browser and on my phone.

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Spanking new editor in my browser…

But boy, were users pissed. Pissed! Check the WordPress.com forum: 19 pages of complaints and counting. Sometimes, I swear, users wouldn’t be happy if you sent them gold bars, because they preferred the silver bars you used to send them. But very often users have a point: they’ve gotten into the swing of your software, and now you’ve changed it and they have to learn it all again. Worse, maybe now something they used to be able to do isn’t there anymore, or if it is, they can’t find it.

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…and on my phone

For the record, I was the first commenter on that thread, because I experienced some of those frustrations. I tried to be kind, but several features I use either went missing or were accessed in a way that I couldn’t easily discover. Argh! And I wished the editing space were wider; it felt awfully cramped. I wasn’t alone in any of these complaints.

I wanted to just edit a post. I didn’t want to learn a new interface. But I found that there’s no way to just revert to the previous editor. It is simply gone.

I understand what drives changes like this and know that this is a monumental achievement this is for WordPress. Still, because I’m a heavy WordPress user, more than anything else I feel frustrated. The new editor breaks all of my usage flows, and I’m having to rediscover everything. I didn’t want this.

It’s the same, by the way, with Microsoft Office’s ribbon, which replaced an older menu structure way back in Office 2007. That’s forever ago in software terms. Yet there are still features I can tell you exactly how to find in those old menus, but I have to Google where they are on the ribbon.

Users don’t give a rip about your business or the future of technology. They use your product to accomplish a thing. As long as they can consistently and easily accomplish that thing, they stay happy. Many users learn your product’s nuances and become quite adept with them. When you suddenly change the UI and all of their flows are interrupted, of course they’re frustrated.

So what would happen if you followed Basecamp’s model? Their software helps companies small and large manage projects. Last month, they released Basecamp 3, a ground-up rewrite — yet they received not a single complaint from existing users. That’s because Basecamp 2, and for that matter Basecamp 1, remain fully active. Existing users can upgrade if they want, or stay put if they don’t. There are compelling reasons to move to Basecamp 3. But if you’re a happy Basecamp 1 or 2 user, those products will be there, fully supported, for as long as you want to use them.

Maybe your company can’t do that. But what can you do to ease the transition for your users, so they can stay fully productive? Think this through. It’s more important than any technology or implementation decision you make.

Fortunately, WordPress does, for some reason, still provide back-door access to an even older editor.

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Outdated but highly functional classic editor

I don’t care that this is based on outdated technology: it’s fully featured, and I know how to make it sing. I cut my blogging teeth on this editor when I started my personal blog in 2007. I’ve written over a thousand posts in it. I hope it never goes away.

Categories
Career Technical Writing

Software technical writing is a dying career (but here’s what writers can do to stay in the software game)

By Jim Grey (about)

I had lunch recently with a fellow I worked for several years ago. He gave me my last job as a technical writer and my first job as a software tester. He’s currently leading product development at a different software company. “Times have changed,” he said. “I don’t have any technical writers anymore. These days, I want the UX to be good enough that documentation isn’t needed.”

A few days later I had a drink with another former boss. I managed testers and technical writers while I worked for him. Since then, he’s started his own consulting company. “Technical writing is dying off,” he said. “It’s all about clean, engaging UX now. I have talked to more than a hundred startup and small software companies as I’ve built my business. Almost none of them have technical writers, and almost all of them have UX designers.”

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Smart tech writers see the writing on the wall.

It’s clear: companies are leaning into good user-interface design and stepping away from online Help systems and printed/PDF documentation.

It’s a relief. Nobody wants to have to read something to learn how to use a software product. When usage falls right to hand, users are happier and more likely to use the product more. Good UX really can reduce the documentation burden.

My last company had mighty good UI design. One technical writer worked for me, and she kept up with about ten developers. In past companies with lesser UIs, I needed one writer for every four or five developers. It took more words to explain those products’ cumbersome usage.

Admittedly, the latent technical writer in me wants to holler, “Users need instructions for even the best designed products!” Some interactions are incredibly hard to design well enough to forego usage instructions. And users will always need usage reminders for seldom-executed tasks.

But the writing is on the wall. If you’re not finding fewer technical writing job openings yet, you will soon. Fortunately, your skills transfer to other jobs in software development organizations. You will need to build some new skills for many of these jobs, but you might be able to land that first new job without them and build them as you work.

Tester or quality assurance engineer

Testers explore software systems looking for bugs. In some shops, they write and execute detailed test cases; in others, they explore based on high-level test charters. The goal is to report, usually by writing bug reports, on the level of quality the developers have delivered so that decisions can be made about when to ship.

Technical writers routinely find product bugs. At my last company, my lone writer routinely found really important bugs. The VP of Engineering even noticed: “She finds outstanding bugs,” he said. “It must be because she thinks like a user.”

When I shifted into testing 15 years ago, I designed my tests in much the same way I designed online help: by first asking what tasks users would perform in the system. Then I set about making sure those tasks worked. You can do this too. You’ll have plenty more to learn about testing, but this is a great place to start.

Existing skills you will use: Creating and articulating mental models of software systems. Exploring software to discover how it works. A basic understanding of how software is built and delivered. Writing.

But build these skills: Database skills, especially writing queries. Light coding or scripting, to help you automate tests. System administration, to help you better understand and manipulate the environments the software lives in. (Don’t be daunted. I’ve seen many writers surprise themselves when they quickly start to learn these things. It’s as if they soaked up technical abilities by osmosis, just by being around lots of people who have them.)

Product owner, product manager, or business analyst

All of these jobs involve understanding customer needs and translating them into user stories, specifications, or requirements that the developers and testers use to build software. They may involve building a vision for what a product needs to be to meet its market’s needs. These people usually work closely with developers and testers to make sure the vision is realized, and to resolve implementation challenges.

Existing skills you will use: Understanding of customer needs. Creating and articulating mental models of software systems (though, in this case, often systems that have not been built yet). Writing. A basic understanding of how software is built and delivered.

But build these skills: Negotiation, as you might need to manage expectations of customers, the development team, and sometimes even management. Estimation and project management, as you might have to participate in sizing work and projecting delivery dates.

Various UX roles

The UX field includes a number of jobs that, together, create the way the software works and feels for the user. Typical titles include UX Designer, Information Architect, Visual Designer, Interaction Designer, and Content Specialist. These roles involve work such as creating wireframes of screens, designing user workflows, performing usability testing of prototypes, interviewing users and sometimes even shadowing them as they work, writing field labels and error messages, and choosing typography.

This might seem like a real stretch for a technical writer. But my experience is that writers often have innate insight into bad UX: if it’s hard to write about, then it’s hard to use. I find that technical writers can often extemporaneously evaluate product usability and give very useful ideas on how to improve UX.

Existing skills you will use: Interviewing. Understanding of customer needs. Creating and articulating mental models of software systems. Writing.

But build these skills: This depends heavily on the role, but: Design, in general. Graphic design. Usability testing. Prototyping.

These jobs crackle with career growth. But if you’d rather stay true to writing, you can shift into marketing communications, instructional design, or even good old-fashioned business writing (policies and procedures, disaster recovery plans, and the like). My town’s biggest employer is a pharmaceutical manufacturer; lots of software writers here have shifted into validation writing, which is an FDA compliance activity. You might even be able to move into writing technology articles and books; I’ve done a little of that. And some software technical writing jobs will likely always remain in regulated industries, and on government contracts, and for highly technical products.

Nostalgia for my former technical-writing career makes this a sad passage for me. But I think this trend toward effective UX is better for the user, and gives writers good paths for growth.