I shudder when I hear about how software needs to be “smart.” It’s not because I think today’s software is smart enough already (it’s not), but because all too often “smart” translates to “intensely annoying.”
If you believe the tech pundits, “smart” software should predict what we’ll do so it can perform the next action faster. “Smart” software should automatically correct our mistakes. And “smart” software should adjust its user interface based on the features we’ve used in the past.
Sounds nice enough, but I’ve rarely seen software do these things without causing even more frustration than it attempts to solve. It ends up being less like a helpful coworker and more like that annoying braniac every office is plagued with who constantly interrupts you with advice on working smarter by doing things his way.
We all know that guy – he’s textbook smart but socially inept. Which is a good description of much of today’s software.
In the semi-perfect world I keep in my head, “smart software” is software that gets the hell out of my way. It doesn’t try to guess what I’m going to do next, doesn’t constantly offer me “helpful” tips, and doesn’t move things around on me in an attempt to suit my needs. And above all, it doesn’t try to predict what I’m going to do, because that only makes the software less predictable.
(Side rant: smart software also doesn’t give me any “tips of the day,” and unless shutting down the application will cause a widespread power outage, it should never ask whether I “really want to exit” when I try to close it.)
Truly smart software shows me some respect by letting me tackle the task at hand with minimal interruption. Instead of confronting me with a myriad of settings and customization options that I’m unlikely to need, it helps me focus by giving me less choices and fewer reasons to have to make those choices in the first place.
So far, my iPhone gets the overall prize for being smartly designed. Yeah, it’s got some annoyances (please, give me cut/copy/paste!), but it’s so damn simple to use that I rarely have to think about what I’m doing. The iPhone also made me see tons of flaws in the software I’ve created – the biggest being that I’ve tried to please power users by making too many non-essential details configurable, and doing so in a way that intimidates new users. I mistook complexity for power, and that wasn’t smart.