Reading Why Software Sucks… and What You Can Do About It is like going on a great date. It’s witty, charming, smart, and cryingly funny.

Shame about the cover.

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“Why Software Sucks” definitely knows how to show you a good time. It makes you feel smart by telling you what you already know: that software sucks. It intrigues you by telling you things that you might not yet know, or wish you didn’t once you do: that software and the Internet are unsafe for everyone in a kind of Russian-Roulette-identity-theft-sort-of-way. And it is, ultimately, very funny.

But at the heart of the book is sage insight into WHY software is still, by all standards, in its own abject Dark Ages. In what could be otherwise be titled, “Malice in Softwareland,” Platt unleashes what he’s learned in 20 years as a software programmer in a comic cluster that’s summed up thusly:

Programmers have to have a certain level of intelligence in order to program… How can they turn into lobotomized morons when designing a user interface? For one simple reason, the same reason behind every communication failure in the universe: They don’t know their users.

As communication professionals we know that the success of any project is based on a thorough understanding of our audience, so it should come as no surprise that not knowing an audience is the ticket for the non-stop flight to Suckville, especially when it comes to design. Platt agrees.

He gives us a Mel Brooksian account of software’s progress through time and points to why it sucks as much today as it did 25 years ago – one reason is that the average person has to remember over two dozen user IDs and passwords to access all our accounts and profiles. In the chapter titled, “Who the heck are you?”, Platt writes:

Selecting a password means choosing among incompatible requirements. You can use a random string for a password, not write it down, even change it once in a while, provided that you have to memorize only one (and also provided that you aren’t in charge of changing it, because you won’t make the effort). Alternatively, you can use as many random strings as you want, if you don’t mind writing them down somewhere you hope is secure… The number-one enemy of computer security isn’t the packet-sniffer, it’s the Post-It Note. So what the heck can we do to make this software stop sucking?

After the rant, Platt does devote an entire chapter to telling us what we can do about it.

The final chapter, “Doing something about it”, tells you the five the steps you need to take to force software developers and vendors to make better stuff.

  1. Buy – Choose to buy software based on its merits. Don’t buy the garbage.
  2. Tell – If you don’t like what you’ve bought, complain about it. Not to your mom, or your mates, to the company that makes it.
  3. Ridicule – See
  4. Trust – Diligently investigate the companies and software you’re going to buy. Make sure they have a good rep.
  5. Organize – Think solidarity, there’s strength in numbers. If software’s bad enough, get a whole BUNCH of people griping about it.

Fortunately, the Internet is here to help us in these efforts. If you’re not looking for a date online, publish your thoughts about your software experiences there, and let them be read. The owner of this website does, David Platt does, and so should you. That is, if you can remember your password to log into your blog’s control panel.

Pick up this book, It’ll make you feel better (and a little bit worse), about the state of things. If nothing else, you’ll feel more empowered because, quite frankly, you have more power to change things than you think. As anthropologist Margaret Mead said, “Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed it’s the only thing that ever has.”

About the Author

Kevin Shoesmith leads Venn Communications, a Vancouver, BC-based service design shop that offers a complete solution for creating interactive, content-driven sites and applications on the Internet. Kevin and his team design websites that allow his clients to efficiently create, manage, and maintain their information assets and content on the Internet.