A phrase we might all think about more is "It just works!"
I'm reminded of this phrase by the interview "Why Software Sucks" on IT Conversations (a great little gem of a site). The interviewee is David Platt, who apparently worked for Microsoft and wrote a book, Why Software Sucks...and What You Can Do About It. The interview is mostly a long whine that makes whatever point it makes in the first five minutes, and takes 49 minutes to finally get around to the "what you can do about it" part, but it does have some interesting tidbits.
One tidbit is David's description of how the UPS web site works, especially when he was in Sweeden. With a lot of major web sites, if you are located outside of the US and enter the URL "amazon.com" or "yahoo.com," you automatically get redirected to the sister site for that country (like www.amazon.co.uk). With UPS's site, the home page makes you choose the country you're in; there's nothing else you can do on the site--not track a package, not log into your account, not view the annual report--without first selecting your country. And apparently if you're in Sweden, this takes 30 mouse clicks and key presses (David counted). This, even though 90% of UPS's packages are shipped in the US. David describes this as a barrier to using UPS's web site (and I agree). The site could at least detect what country your browser and its Internet connection is in, and default to that country--that is, assuming that the site even really needs to know what country you're in.
By comparison, you can enter a UPS tracking number in the Google search field; Google recognizes the string as a UPS tracking number, gets the package status from UPS, and displays it. Google doesn't need to know what country you're in (or figures it out without bothering you). Google just works.
In fact, a general theme for Google is that it has the world's simplest search syntax, which is no syntax. You type it a search string, it tries to figure out what you mean, and generally does a pretty good job. To get an idea of what all Google can do with one simple search box, check out Google Web Search Features. For example, if you misspell a search term, Google will often suggest the correct term. How does it do this? Some amazing AI cognitive learning computer? Not really. It watches searches that don't return much, and then the next search from the same browser for a term spelled slightly differently, which returns a rich set of matches, where the user follows a match and doesn't search again for a while. When Google sees this several times, it figures out that the second term is the correct spelling for the first term and subsequently suggests it as a correction. It's not figuring out what the current user meant, it's just watching what past users did and how they corrected mistakes and assuming that the current user may need the same correction. ("Database Requirements in the Age of Scalable Services" by Adam Bosworth) I use this Google feature as a spelling checker; type in a misspelled word, the result screen suggests the proper spelling. It's easier that firing up Word and opening a blank document, has no pop-up adds like the dictionary web sites, and is certainly much easier than opening the dictionary book on my bookshelf. Google just works.
So how does Google know that a search string is a UPS tracking number? I think it doesn't. I think it runs many queries concurrently, judges which are the best matches, and merges the result lists with the most promising matches first. So if a string looks like it might be a tracking number, Google probably runs it on all of the major package delivery sites; most don't match, UPS does, so then Goolgle infers that this is a UPS package tracking number. If a package ever had "paris hilton" or "amanda beard" (popular searches, according to Google Zeitgeist) for a tracking number, Google would probably be stumped.
So the point is that Google just works, and UPS doesn't. Google is a better interface to UPS than UPS's own web site is. The UPS web designers could have designed a better interface, but chose not to. But they should have.
Another example is a dishwasher where you put in soap once a month. Each time you run it, it uses the proper amount of soap. It just works.
In Microsoft Word, two examples are the red squiglies under misspelled words and the auto-correct so that when you type "hte" it inserts "the." These are good features; they just work. They're also several years old and point to the lack of useful innovation in the latest versions of Word.
On the flip side, a lot of things don't just work, no matter how easy it may be. Why does Quicken 2007 display ads telling me I should upgrade to Quicken 2007?!
Lest you assume I think that IBM is somehow faultless in this regard, let me clarify that I (and many inside of IBM) believe that our products are too had to use. They're very sophisticated, but they make simple stuff hard. We want to make our products easier to use; it's an effort we call "consumability." Our products too often don't just work; we're trying to make that easier and more common.
One galling example for me is IBM's internal employee directory. The amazingly good news is that we have a single list of all 300,000+ employees, who their management is, how to contact them, and some fuzzy description of what they do as employees of IBM. This is an amazing feat of database federation. The bad news is that search is a pain; it needs Google. As a simple example, with the main search field, you can chose to specify that you're looking for a name, Internet address, Notes address, phone number, etc. I frequently put in someone's Internet or Notes e-mail address, but get no matches because the default search type is name. I have to change the search to the proper type, run the search again, and this time get the match. Why not look at the string and infer what the type seems to be? @ means Internet address, /IBM means Notes address, digits and dashes mean phone number (even internationally), etc.? Why not run several searches concurrently, then merge the one that worked with the others that matched nothing? That would mean more work for the computer, but less work for me, and that's a trade-off I'm willing to make!
Getting back to David's interview: He believes that us programmers focus too much on what programming language we use, whether the code is object-oriented, whether the architecture is service oriented, etc. The users don't care, they just want software that works. I think David's blame is a bit misdirected--programmers ought to know what languages make them productive for various tasks, and architects ought to care about architecture. But someone ought to also care about user experience, and that should be driving the use cases that drive not how the product is implemented but how well it helps the user do their job. OO or not, SOA or not, you want an experience where the user says, "It just works!"
So what kind of software have you written lately? Created any interfaces like the UPS web site? What can you do in your software so that the users will say, "It just works!"
It Just Works