Government 2013

Volume 28 Number 10A

Don't Get Me Started - Singing Your Song

By David Platt | Government 2013

David PlattMy youngest daughter came home from gymnastics class the other day, bubbling with enthusiasm. “Daddy, I won my team’s unsung hero award!” she exclaimed. “That means I’m awesome, but nobody ever says it.”

That describes you, my friends, does it not? Working for (or with) the government is rarely glorious. NASA moon landing moments are few and far between. You work hard and do your best, but does anyone even once say thank you? Does anyone even notice you’re alive, except when a headline blares “Computer error exposes a million Social Security numbers”?

But where would the country be without your efforts? What if retirees’ Social Security checks didn’t arrive? What if the CDC couldn’t track next winter’s flu? Imagine if jet fuel or bullets—or even coffee—didn’t get ordered for the next military expedition? The entire country would screech to a halt.

So I hereby acknowledge your efforts and your place in making our country work. And I do thank you, from the bottom of my heart.

You caught me in a really good mood. Yesterday I renewed my driver’s license online, without schlepping to the registry. That sounds tiny, but multiply it by a million drivers per week, and someone did a very good thing by putting government services on the Web.

You’re already doing a good job, and you must be reading this magazine in hopes of doing an even better job. Good for you. Regardless of any budget crunch, that’s within your reach. It just takes careful thought. You can make any program better by improving its UX.

Consider how Google has evolved its user interaction over time. At first it was a Web page you had to call up. Then it was a toolbar always present in your browser. Then it started suggesting topics as you typed. Today it even pre-fetches pages as you type. Google is ruthlessly, even brutally, driving down the effort required to use its service. A millisecond here, two milliseconds there, times a billion queries per day ... it adds up fast.

Google accomplishes all of this without training its users. On the contrary, the company is constantly refining its UX to match the user thought process (“I’m feeling lucky”), not the other way around. Google uses computers for what computers are good at, so humans can do what humans are good at. You should aim for the same.

Know Thy User

Google religiously follows my First, Last and Only Law of UX Design: “Know Thy User, for He Is Not Thee.” Like a Dale Carnegie rule, it’s extremely simple but demands conscious effort to actually apply. You have to practice it every day until it becomes part of you. As my daughter likes to say, “Never criticize a man until you’ve walked a mile in his shoes. Then when you do start criticizing him, you have a mile head start and he has to chase you in his socks.”

Read the classics on UX: “The Design of Everyday Things” by Donald Norman (Basic Books, 2002), “The Inmates Are Running the Asylum” by Alan Cooper (Sams-Pearson Education, 2004) and my own humble offering, “Why Software Sucks” (Addison-Wesley Professional, 2006). Take a class in UX design, like the ones I teach ( Aim to make software just work.

That will perfectly position you for your next huge project where you’ll be putting your public data where anyone with an idea can use it. Read “Big Data” (Eamon Dolan/Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2013) by Viktor Mayer-Schonberger and Kenneth Cukier. Learn how Google managed to track the flu ahead of the CDC by mining its search term usage. Someone out there can do something you never even imagined with the public data you’re holding, once you open it up to them. And you have the key.

When you and I meet someday, I’d really like to hear how you took my simple law and applied it to your program. If you liked this article, I hope you’ll read my regular column in MSDN Magazine. You can find plenty of my work at Think of it as a cross between Andy Rooney, Dennis Miller and George Will. I’ll warn you right now, though, I’m not always this nice.

David S. Platt teaches programming .NET at Harvard University Extension School and at companies all over the world. He’s the author of 11 programming books, including “Why Software Sucks” (Addison-Wesley Professional, 2006) and “Introducing Microsoft .NET” (Microsoft Press, 2002). Microsoft named him a Software Legend in 2002. He wonders whether he should tape down two of his daughter’s fingers so she learns how to count in octal. You can contact him at