October 2017

Volume 32 Number 10

[Don't Get Me Started]

A Measure of Displeasure

By David S. Platt | October 2017

David S. PlattI’ve just solved a major problem in my never-ending crusade against sucky software. I can recognize sucky software, explain why it’s bad, and what it should be instead. But I’ve never been able to quantify an app or Web site’s level of suckiness. Until now.

Anyone who's done any sort of research knows that, "If you can't measure it, you can't manage it." If you don't have some sort of metric to quantify how well you're doing, you can't tell if an intervention you make was effective or not. That's why studies in the treatment of pain are so difficult. You can't just slap a meter on someone to see how much they're hurting.

So, how to quantify a bad UX? This app sucked, but how badly? More than this other app, or less? I tried some multifactor rubrics: frequency of crashes, amount of data lost, length of learning curve, extra keystrokes over the required number and so on. I found all these metrics too complicated. A measurement for ease of use has to be easy to use itself, no?

The revelation hit me a month ago. I was trying to connect my new iPhone to Harvard's secure Wi-Fi network, which was a huge pain in the ass. I had to call tech support (on my Android phone) and work through it with them for about half an hour. The complexity and opaqueness of this supposedly easiest of devices astonished me, and I found myself saying "WTF?" again and again. Curmudgeon that I am, I kept track. By the time I'd finished the process and mercifully released the poor tech support agent, I'd said "WTF?" six separate times.

There's my metric. I hereby decree that henceforward, all bad software shall be rated on the PWS scale, which stands for Plattski's WTF Score. It's the number of times a user says "WTF?" when installing or using an app.

Like the Apgar score for newborn babies (see wikipedia.org/wiki/­Apgar_score), the PWS is a snap to calculate and compare. Connecting my iPhone to Harvard's Wi-Fi network scored a six. Connecting my Android scored only a three. My Android was twice as easy to use as my iPhone. Who knew?

I've found that the PWS works best at the extremes of its range. The difference between a five and a six isn't huge. But the difference between a three and an eight certainly is.

Here's another real example. I was setting up two different weight scales that automatically log their readings over Wi-Fi to Microsoft HealthVault. The first came from Blipcare, and its software stunk. For example, clicking the login button on the main site (blipcare.com), redirected me to wellness.blipcare.com (Figure 1), where the Web page greeted me with this gem: "The Blipcare Wellness Portal is available at http://wellness.blipcare.com." Whoa, isn't that where I already am? Didn't your own login button just send me here? WTF? (On further inspection, the link in Figure 1 points to <https://wellness.blip­care.com/portal/f?p=100>. Without the portal suffix, you don't get the site. This WTF is well deserved.)

Isn’t wellness.blipcare.com Where I Already Am?

Figure 1 Isn’t wellness.blipcare.com Where I Already Am?

Muddling past that, the so-called wizard takes me to a page that offers to set up notification rules. I can be alerted by a High, Medium or Low level notification, signified by red, orange or green color if my weight "satisfies a defined rule." I just want to record my damn weight, not get a full TSA terrorism alert (bit.ly/2v2VF2w) when I eat a basket of onion rings. WTF?

I don't have space here to list them all, but by the time I'd gotten the Blipcare scale hooked up, I said WTF nine separate times. Nine! I declare this the maximum for any app. When the PWS hits 10, you throw the damn thing away. And the pox on anyone who would release an app that bad.

On the other hand, I found Fitbit's Aria scale pleasantly easy to connect. It didn't redirect me anywhere cryptic. The instructions showed a picture of a critical step, which Blipcare omitted. I said WTF only once during that installation.

I've been using the PWS ever since. Try it, and tell me what you think. The best I've found so far is Amazon's One-Click ordering system, which scores a PWS of zero. At least, until the bill comes. Then I say it a lot.

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 rollthunder.com.

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