Users will tolerate a lot to get their work done

Suppose users have a choice of two software applications.

  • Application #1: Beautiful user interface, well documented, robust. It does 99% of what they need in order to get their work done, but they don’t know how to do the remaining 1%.
  • Application #2: Ugly, poorly documented, crashes routinely, but it does 100% of what they need.

Users will choose #2. If they have no other options, they may even be excited about it. This took me a while to understand. I was dumbfounded the first time I had the following conversation, but I’ve had it several times since.

User: This is a really great piece of software!

Me: But doesn’t it crash easily?

User: Yeah, but it does just what I need!

The key is the missing 1% in the first application. Developers may not realize that 1% is missing. Or they may over-estimate how willing/able the user is to fill in the last 1%.

Update: When I wrote this, I particularly had in mind the case where the buggy but complete program came first. Users may not choose it from scratch, but they will certainly stick with it if they’re already using it.

11 thoughts on “Users will tolerate a lot to get their work done

  1. So true, in my experience, the end user does not care of any of the background work, the way the app was architected and developed, if it produces flawlessly the desired result, the end user will be happy.

    This is mostly all of the time, some exceptions some time, like actually crashing or long response times.

    The things mentioned in the first scenario, will just be truly making happy the development team, even sometimes the dev team lost focus on doing an actual functional product, because they focus totally on making a beautiful perfect product, which is very dificult to make.

  2. Roberto Liffredo

    Going feature to feature with legacy software may be really difficult, because the comparison is not fair.
    Existing software is well-known and understood. Users know how to avoid crashes, and use the tool at its best.
    On the contrary, the new software requires retraining and adaptation. People will try to use it in the same way as the other, usually finding it more difficult, simply because they stick with the old mindset.

  3. Joel Spolsky wrote a nice essay in 2001 addressing pretty much this problem. Except for some storage costs, the essay holds quite well over ten years later.

  4. So to which category does the latest Visual Studio 2011 fall into (given the outcry over colors)?!?!

  5. @Anand When your users start complaining about colors, you know you’ve shipped the last version of the program that will ever be sold based on feature availability. You’ve hit the point where your users love your product so much, they actually care about the nonsense issues.

  6. I love the assertion that aesthetics are “nonsense issues.” This is an excellent data point in the long story about why software UI, and particularly open source UI, sucks so very bad.

  7. “Users will choose #2. ”

    The confidence of that assertion surprises me. Is it the product of your personal anecdotes or is there experimental evidence you could provide links to? I have no evidence saying you might be wrong, but I do wonder.

  8. It makes complete sense that if you can’t do *everything* the consumer wants, they will choose an alternative that can.

    Yet, I believe that if you establish great communication with users and a brand image as being a company that cares about users and acts on feedback, you can solicit feedback from users to find out how to get to that 100%.

  9. > I love the assertion that aesthetics are “nonsense issues.” This is an excellent data point in the long story about why software UI, and particularly open source UI, sucks so very bad.

    Just wanted to nod my head in agreement here. Aesthetics and UI issues are astonishingly undervalued in software. I’m not a Visual Studio user, so I don’t have a dog in this fight, but if a piece of software I used all day every day was changed to be slightly uglier, that *would* be a big issue for me. It’s like spending all day sitting on a chair that squeaks every time you move. Why put up with it?

  10. There’s a sort of Maslow’s hierarchy of user needs. Getting your work done is at the bottom. Aesthetics are near the top.

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