Software Design – What comes first: Functionality or Usability?

Designers and developers have very different views on what should a product look like, how it should behave and even what its sphere of influence should be.

I started building my design skills around designing classes and their relationships, service interfaces and software architecture. Gradually, I moved to designing UIs since an increasing number of Web Applications were turning RIA, both in Enterprise and Consumer world; the industry was moving in that direction.  I focused on building applications with UI that would be easy to use while maintaining the necessary complexity of business requirements. Like that of any other developer, my instincts were naturally tuned to designing the applications for better code reuse, appropriate use of design patterns,  generic functionality and extensibility. Everything but usability. Almost every software engineer that I know has been conventionally  focused on functionality and the other things I mentioned above.

But hey, what is more important – Functionality or Usability?

This question, to say the least, is unfair. Usually, this question is asked by Software Engineers the most. Why? Because for them prioritizing their tasks is the biggest challenge. Most often developers enter the scene too late in a product management life cycle, which is the development time, of course starting from Low Level Design. Most of the high level design or problem solving is limited to people who are either too far removed from the ground realities of implementation or have too little bandwidth to delve in such issues. Their main focus is making the customer happy and they seem to do their jobs pretty well, except they end up making the engineer’s job hell. An engineer is required to make all the tactical decisions with free will, yet under the constraint that the product they are building must remain highly usable as perceived by the business analyst or technical product manager, or customer.

Why do Engineers put Functionality first?

Engineers like rational thinking and naturally go for the optimal path in solving problems, and they like to solve the whole problem at once. They don’t understand the concept of a “Dumb User”, because they see the world being made of intelligent beings. They like to build products that are feature rich and can have various layers of complexity like human mind. Yet, they fail to realize that an ordinary user rarely ever thinks of a complex product as an intellectually rewarding puzzle, for her every software product she uses serves as a means to an end. Engineers like to throw in a little extra on the functionality hoping the user will some day, lost in their tracks as they usually are, hit upon a remote corner of the application and be pleased to find something useful to do there and be awed by how deep the engineers mind had penetrated. Whereas, users mostly like to stay in the well acquainted territory of known functionality which is usually only a 20% of the total functionality of a product so they would rather have that 20% delivered to them rock solid robustness and tremendous ease of use.

When to bring in Usability?

In principle, as soon as you conceive the product. In reality, every development milestone should be trigger for a Usability Test like it is for a Sanity Test. Usability is not just about decoration, it is about serving a pleasurable experience that user may want to return to, over and over again. Now, even though it sounds logical, Usability is rarely a part of development or design discussion amongst engineers. The only people you see ever discussing about usability are Designers, QA, Product Managers, Sales and Customer Support. Which means, except developers, everybody else thinks about it. And you might wonder why so, and how it might be resolved?

Engineers need to Understand “Why?” before they start on “How?”

If a developer, while writing code, finds a situation that doesn’t make sense, it probably really doesn’t make sense, yet the developer ever so engrossed in getting things done, churning large volumes of code every minute, doesn’t want to examine it. That is where the usability is compromised the most. If developers understand what business purpose the feature is serving, they can never build an unusable product.

Is that it?

Yes and No! For basic usability scenarios, that related to low level controls and basic interaction between the controls, developer paying more attention can solve the problem.

In Next Post I will discuss how usability can move higher up on an Engineers priority list.

JavaScript 2.0 – A New Avatar

Java Script for objects: Brought to you by ECMA.

Now this is something that was pending for a long time now. Twelve years since the birth of JavaScript and no major or minor updates to the language. Imagine how much of value it must have offered to the entire web developer community to have survived in the software world without changing for twelve years.

As the creator of JavaScript and currently the CTO of Mozilla Foundation , Brendan Eich said,”It is not a revolution, just an evolution of existing capabilities.” It sure has been long due now. Especially, with the AJAX and Web2.0 taking WWW to a different paradigm altogether. Making it essential that the foundation of the new web be stronger and reinforced with as much steel as possible.

I would be looking forward to see how it evolves. The primary challenges would be to keep it as simple as it has been and still provide an OO environment for building RIA.

Packaging and scoping are some of the mandatory requirements for the JavaScript 2.0 to keep it rolling. And another challenge is the ascertain that the JavaScript loaded on the browser is not a security risk for the computer, because the internet browsers, as we know them today, don’t provide proper sandbox environment like a JVMs do.

There is a lot that would be expected out JS2.0 and I am sure, like before, it is going to deliver.

You can track the progress of JavaScript 2.0 or as the project Code name says ECMAScript from this link. ECMAScript

Torrent over RIA…Cascading Revolution!

Can Do: A New Paradigm for content sharing

A year and a half back a friend of mine, who is doing his research on biotechnology, explained to me a new way of sharing files that was taking heat and that could actually make things far more quicker in spite of the bandwidth variations across the internet.

Bit Torrent is a very innovative protocol designed to make file sharing over internet much easier and less bandwidth-intensive. Amazing technological advancement in the area of content distribution with shared bandwidth.

The concept of fragmenting the target files across a host of computers connected to the internet makes the entire idea of “high load on single server” obsolete. The connected computers distribute the fragments by downloading them from other computers and then making them available for upload for those computers that don’t already have the fragment.

This enables sharing between a large number of peers possible without increasing the load drastically on any single machine. And thus making it far more faster than a normal download over an FTP or HTTP would take for the same file size.

The downloads and uploads however still remain bandwidth dependent as everything else is on internet but in this case the dependency never leads to a bottle neck. The flow is constant and the load shared therefore reducing the chances of having single point of failure. Bit Torrent also enables non-continuous downloads inherently because the continuity can never be assured over internet given the fluctuating nature of the bandwidth.

Desire: Ease of Usage and Friendliness

To avail the power of Bit Torrent based file sharing, you would normally require a client side application that helps you in performing download management tasks viz. Bandwith Allocation per download, prioritizing downloads, pausing and resuming, seeding etc.

And to those of you who use internet extensively, installing yet another application sounds to be an encumbrance. Organizing all the applications on your desktop, then updating versions, re-installation, firewall limitations etc. are some of the common problems one faces while using tools like Torrent clients.

How one wishes there was a way of putting all these applications on top of another layer of organization within your desktop that would manage all these issues, instead of your having to sit once every week and arrange stuff on your desktop manually.

Alternative: Desktop Rich Internet Application Platform

Having a RIA platform opens a great deal of opportunities for both developers and end-users. Developers find it easy to experiment with their ideas and offer their services over a customizable application development platform. End-users on the other hand benefit from a constantly growing community effort in bringing out function rich applications.

The RIA platforms and the desktop web has caught interest of major software vendors in the industry, to name a few Google and Adobe and they are in a race to offer these platforms out of their angelic desires to make the end user ever more equipped and enabled to leverage the strength of internet and web technologies.

Pramati, a relatively small fish in the huge ocean, on the other hand has already arrived with a solution that is simple, elegant and as powerful as your imagination. Dekoh in it’s entirety has altogether different view about how the world to come will use internet.

As I have been talking about Dekoh in my previous posts, so I won’t bother you with what Dekoh is. However, Dekoh can be used in places where no one could have ever imagined. Dekoh has evolved considerably in the past few months and its capabilities are growing by the day.

For a torrent service and client application all you need is a basic web server with trackers and clients that can communicate over the internet. Dekoh provides you with a personal webserver and there is a Central Application Server, both of these combined can add broader tracking facilities for Bit-Torrent files.

Dekoh architecture also enables you to work from behind the firewalls which means that it is possible that your IM services may be interrupted or your access to the internet may be limited but your downloads will never stop as long as you have Dekoh with you.

Wondering on these possibilities, the day is not far when you might actually hear about Torrent being available over Dekoh platform, making end-users’ lives much more simpler and organized.

Torrent over a Desktop based RIA platform, in my opinion will make a killer combination and I will be following up on it more. You keep tuned in to know more.

Attention Bibliophiles – Personal Cataloging has arrived!

I am a bibliophile. I love collecting books but over the last few years I stopped collecting books because I couldn’t manage them. I was loosing as many books as I was buying, so my library never grew beyond a certain number. I lost them because I would lend them to friends and forget to take them back or carelessly leave them at places from where not even God could retrieve them.

For the latter problem there was nothing much I could do. But thankfully for the former one I found this cool tool that I have started using.

Personal Book Cataloging, using Dekoh Books. You probably already know that I talking about a product that my company has built and it is fair on your part to assume that I am writing this article to sell an application that was built by my company. I won’t deny that, but that is not the only reason. Dekoh Books has indeed helped me catalogue my books and figure out which books are with my friends, which are with my family and which ones have I simply misplaced.

Dekoh_Books_Organize

The best part about Dekoh books is that now I can even add books to my Wishlist so that whenever I get a chance to visit a good book store, I can simply go through my wishlist and find out which books are pending on my list.

Dekoh_Books_Wishlist

There is another cool feature of this application. You can search for books through Amazon.com Web Service and add them to your Wishlist, which will enable you to fetch the ISBN number and a thumbnail image of the book’s cover so that when you go to buy that book, you don’t pick some other similar sounding book by mistake.

Some books that I found through Dekoh Books Search by Keyword are visible in the snapshot above which has three recommended books that I have been trying to find for years now.

Click to see my shared books. **

And you will get the idea.

To start using this application, all you gotta do is visit www.dekoh.com

** If it asks you user name and password, type the following "neoriz" & "dekoh123".

Dekoh This!

Pramati launched Dekoh at Web2.0 Expo and we have been growing in our user base ever since. Here are some points you should know…

  • It is not a browser plug-in.
  • Yes! you have to install it on your computer but it takes less than 5 minutes for the framework installation on a high-speed network connection.
  • It is not the same thing as Google Gears or Adobe’s Apollo, it is very different and is more focused on bringing lay users the facility to host applications and content on their home computer, only for small scale web application hosting, social networking and collaboration.
  • Works out of a web browser, so no pain of learning how to operate on some new proprietary user interface.

Evaluate Dekoh, if you want all these things:

  1. Personal Hosting: A platform that enables you to build custom web applications to be used within your community and host them from your desktop.
  2. No-Upload Sharing: Want to share content with your friends, family and/or peer group without uploading any stuff anywhere.
  3. Personal Audio/Video Streaming Stations: You want to play music or videos stored at your home desktop anywhere in the world.
  4. Work Off line: You want to maintain to build an application that connects to Web Service, synchronize your local data store and then allows you to work on that data even when you are off line. (like in a basement, in flight, or while you are out camping.)

Benefits of working on Dekoh Platform:

  1. Open Source: You don’t have to pay anything but attention (to your idea)!
  2. Free Support: Our engineers will help you customize the platform (if you really need it), application support (for configuration and maintenance related issues).
  3. Creative Freedom: You can build almost any sort of application that needs a web server to run it. You imagination is your limit.
  4. Web 2.0 Toolkit: You can use our widgets and request for other components that are related to Web 2.0 to add flavor and flexibility to your and your community’s experience.
  5. Dev Kit: The best part about Dekoh is that a Dev Kit for building basic applications and deploying them takes under 30 seconds.
  6. Powerful Application Server: You will be leveraging the power of our enterprise application server, which has been condensed and made available to you for free with almost the same robustness, scalability and extensibility.
  7. API for extension: If you have some experience with extending API’s, you will know what we are talking about here. The potential to enhance the whole platform to your personal advantage with no cost involved.
  8. Be Trendy: It’s a cool app, which will make your desktop look cooler than before. The industry is moving towards offline web applications, and giants like Google and Adobe are the best benchmarks for understanding the trend.