The cranky user recants

(This article first appeared on IBM developerWorks.)

Peter Seebach ([]

Freelance contributor

April 1, 2003

Column icon As time goes on, we all have to admit our mistakes; even columnists at respected Web sites like this one. Perhaps it's time I addressed a few of the gaffes I've made during the history of this column. Really, it's not that bad; one column of recanting for more than twenty columns that were entirely flawless. I hope this column is enlightening, as it's a bit hard to back down from my earlier positions. Luck being on my side, my readers will meet me halfway.

From the first column, The Cranky User has always been focused on usability from the perspective of users. On the other hand, I've often ignored crucial components of the developer experience. One of the purposes of this column is to address the needs of developers, whose needs are often overlooked. Likewise, this column will address common concerns of Web designers, who are too often on the receiving end of angry complaints about their page designs. Some readers may wonder why it took me so long to realize this; I have no real answer, I just felt this was the right time for this column.

Web pages

My columns have generally focused on the issues faced by users, but the fact is, this is an unrealistic model. Web developers are the ones whose blood, sweat, and tears are poured into each Web page; hence, they should have a bit more say in how those pages are viewed.

Realistically, readers are obligated to make sure their browser and software are up to snuff. A user who doesn't employ the current version of Internet Explorer hasn't got a leg to stand on when complaining about Web pages; after all, the user could easily arrange to run IE, and at far less expense than it costs the developer to design two or three separate Web sites to make the best use of multiple browsers.

Likewise, users should always look for a statement noting the suggested monitor resolution and color depth, and change his accordingly; to do otherwise is simply a slap in the face to a developer who spent weeks tuning the site carefully to run on that old flat panel display no one else was using, even if it was a bit coffee-stained in the upper-right corner. The only real problem here is that most sites don't tell you what contrast and brightness settings to use, so you sometimes have to experiment to get the best possible results.

In practice, most users who can't view the most modern pages aren't missing much anyway; all the real data on the Internet is on fuddy-duddy pages like Google which don't use any modern technology, and are thus useless for most people with modern computers. Ever since the pioneering work done by Philip Mirsky in the field of site-specific Web pages, we've known that you can't make a good site work in more than one browser; by trying to support old browsers, developers are crippling the functionality of new computers. A modern browser, which supports JavaScript, may be totally unable to navigate a page which doesn't use JavaScript; if the buttons don't pulse and gradually move towards the mouse of their own volition, how is the user supposed to click on them?

Users whose computers can't handle the demands of modern multimedia-enhanced Web sites should upgrade. Broadband is cheap. Web pages are expensive. It's pretty obvious who's got to give. Users are always coming up with unique excuses for why their needs are important and the Web designer's needs aren't. This tyranny of the majority must be stopped.

Company policies

The fact is, people aren't grateful enough to companies who are doing their best to keep in touch, stay informed, and help integrate themselves with the lives of consumers. Everyone talks about invasion of privacy as though it's a problem, but why? When our friends call to check up on us, or exchange news, we don't treat it as unwelcome! We should recognize the need for companies to have access to the information they need to make informed decisions, and to give us the information we need to make informed decisions before buying their products.

A lot of companies spend a lot of time and effort dealing with unhappy customers who are, frankly, just whining to hear the sounds of their own voices. People complain about the short life spans of certain products, for instance. Lots of people are buying new computers, and getting faster and more powerful machines than the old ones you and I got last summer; if that computer stops working, it's just helping us get a leg up on a faster, more digital, lifestyle. As always, when you eliminate the tyranny of the majority, and start thinking in terms of the needs of the people making the industry possible, everything changes for the better -- at least for those people.

Throughout the industry, you see a lot of time spent addressing bogus complaints like this. Think of all the companies who have made improvements to their data-handling policies, only to be treated like they broke a promise. Hah! Everyone knows that posted policies aren't any kind of commitment; they're more like guidelines. And many of these companies have full-time staffs whose primary goal is to change the company story to make it sound better; that's dedicated customer service, leaving everything else secondary to making the customer feel better.


A lot of users complain bitterly about the need to update with the latest security patches. They should stop applying the patches and stop whining. Security patches often prevent developers from making needed modifications to the user's environment to provide maximum performance and stability; this harms the user experience. Instead of obsessing over every little security hole, people should spend their time developing a conservative data management strategy so they won't have to worry to begin with.

Once again, this would allow businesses to dramatically reduce the cost of development and maintenance, and make it a lot easier for programs to ensure successful operation. This goes even when that operation might otherwise require a user to do some kind of complicated administrative task, or enter a password. The change in software reliability would be impressive and we could get that change with almost no effort at all!

Microsoft's pioneering work in this field is amazing; Internet Explorer's flexibility and variety of operational roles cannot be overstated. The capacity for remote system administration is just stunning and has made Web site design a much more interesting and lucrative field. Unfortunately, differences between the Windows and Macintosh implementations have limited this; users should ditch the Mac and make things a bit easier for developers in this respect.

In conclusion

Everything I've ever said about usability was written from the perspective of a bunch of know-nothing dweebs who provide nothing irreplaceable to the computer industry; I was ignoring the point of view of the self-appointed experts who brought us many labor-saving devices, such as the excuse that "the computer crashed". These people, not a bunch of lazy users, are the ones whose opinions matter. Let's all be nice to them for a while. At least until May 1st.

Action item: Write down the first letter of each sentence in the Introductory section. Did you get any surprises?


About the author

Photo of Peter Seebach Peter Seebach has been having trouble navigating through badly designed pages since before frames and JavaScript existed. He continues to believe that, some day, pages will be designed to be usable, rather than designed to look impressive. He can be reached at [file://localhost/home/seebs/ic/crankynew/] .