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Omniweb feature-bragging?

I'm afraid that Joel is wide of the mark with his latest mini-post about Omniweb's permanent bookmark address change dialog.  (Omniweb's a pretty neat browser, BTW, but that's aside from the point.)

Joel doesn't like the dialog because it is unnecessarily inflicts upon the user the need to make a complicated design decision that **they don't understand as well as the software designers**.

Read that last (emphasized) phrase again.  No, give it one more look.  That perspective, that the developers of a piece of software have it all over the users, is probably the most dangerous yet commonly-held notion in the software industry (at least that portion of the industry that deals in end-user applications).

It's very intuitively true though, right?  Of *course* developers know more than users!  Those silly users don't even know what a pointer is! 

But here's the main point I'm making, and I think it's critical to building an application that a user can happily coexist with:

**Users always know more about what they want to do than a developer does**.  Always.

That commonly-held notion that I spelled out above is bascially true -- developers do know more (and sometimes better) than users.  However, taking that perspective to the typical extreme leads the developer to build an application that quietly subverts the user through a thousand tiny cuts, sometimes without the user even being aware of it.

I'm not going to argue extensively about whether the Omniweb dialog is proper or not (especially since "permanent redirects" are pretty flippantly used throughout the web, even in decidedly temporary-redirect circumstances), because my position would probably be in conflict with the position of everyone else.  But that's the point -- if I put that bookmark there, that's my bookmark, and how DARE that browser go and modify it without my permission?  Now, if I had configured the browser in the prefs to do this without warning or permission (which is a setting to be had in Omniweb, under the bookmarks section of the preferences), that's fine: I've stated my intention, and the application will (hopefully) carry it out.  That's not egotistical self-advertising; that's a developer wanting to be very cautious and selective about when he/she automatically manipulates the user's data, which is a Good Thing(tm).  Unauthorized automatic manipulation of data (in the guise of "helping the user") is always prone to being out of snyc with the user's intentions.

Office suites take this notion of helping the user to the nth, and most annoying degree.  Take MS Office as an example.  When I first install it, it doesn't lead me through a simple setup dialog that asks "Would you like Office to help you with common formatting tasks?".  I would say NO, NO, NO, faster than you could click a mouse, because of the myraid ways that Word subverts what I'm trying to do through a thousand tiny cuts: automagically "fixing" the spelling of supposedly misspelled words, automagically capitalizing the first word typed into a text cell in Excel, automagically selecting the entirety of a word when I only want to select part of it, automagically changing nearly all of the formatting attributes of a piece of text for any of a hundred reasons, etc., etc., ad infinitum.  (OpenOffice does the exact same type of things, but to a slightly lesser extent.)  These "features" are why I have slowly weaned myself off of using Word except for a few things that really need to be in Word (i.e. my resume).

Of course, a developer always does things for the user that affect the user's data without asking -- Joel is right in that great developers and applications should strive towards providing completely invisible features.  However, one must be very, *very* careful when doing so so as to avoid pissing off the user, to put it bluntly.  Office suites definitely do not meet that criteria for me, but OmniWeb does, because it gives me a choice of [yes, do that for me | no, don't touch it | maybe, but let me tell you what to do all the time from now on].

Perhaps it's an issue of user sophistication, that more neophyte users prefer and actually rely on features like those provided by Office et al., but I'm not so sure.  I've known many relatively shallow folks complain even more loudly than I do about Office's transgressions (if that's even possible!).  So, to recap:

**Users always know more about what they want to do than a developer does**.  Always.

Chas
Friday, June 20, 2003

Heh, typical: while I was doing my writeup, another topic was created discussing the same issues.

Sorry guys.

Chas
Friday, June 20, 2003

The only change needed in this dialog box is the usual "Never ask me this stupid question again".

Application Specialist
Friday, June 20, 2003

Sorry, I agree with Joel.

An HTTP 301 means a permanent change. No prompt should be needed. Change the bookmark. An HTTP 302 means a temporary change. No problem should be needed. Don't change the bookmark.

Hey, folks, that's why we have two different codes!

Brad Wilson (dotnetguy.techieswithcats.com)
Friday, June 20, 2003

Note the OmniWeb has an option to silently update bookmarks without prompting - I don't believe it's the default but it should be.

Chris Adams
Friday, June 20, 2003

It's a commn misconception that the expertise applied by developers is purely in coding.

Developers bring to the table a depth of information to do with automated task management and the way that works, and can work, in desktop and network environments.

Most users do not have a clue as to the first principles of this stuff, and often are not good at capturing their work tasks either. So it is entirely appropriate for developers to automate many parts of the user experience.

.
Friday, June 20, 2003

Invisible features definitely make sense for a product that's aimed at the mainstream, but I'm not sure OmniWeb falls into that category. OmniWeb's main market is geeks and experienced users who actually care what browser they use. 99.9% of Mac OSX users will be perfectly happy with Safari or even IE, which is still the default browser on many Macs. Those two browsers are free; OmniWeb costs $30 for a license. Nobody's going to spend money on a Web browser unless they're really dissatisfied with the alternatives or if they crave particular features offered only by OmniWeb.

If OmniWeb is for people who want a browser with more features and flexibility, wouldn't it make sense for OmniWeb to flaunt those features rather than make them invisible? And to give them the option to make the feature invisible if they want to? (which OmniWeb does)

Brad Hurley
Friday, June 20, 2003

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