Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Thank you ADC

Every IDE has it's own quirks and ways of seeing the world. Unfortunately for developers that means spending time getting used to viewing the world in that particular way. Whether this is good interface design practice I will leave for another post but I'll leave a quick note while passing by. Since an IDE is really an environment rather than an application like Word and it's a tool that will be used by experts much like Photoshop or Illustrator, it may not be a very bad thing to make it just hard enough to use so that new comers have to spend some time learning how to do things in the environment. The benefit of this approach is that once users have gone through this learning process they are much more proficient; compare your average Word user who has discovered most of the features through self discovery (aka snooping around the interface) and uses on average 10 features to your average Photoshop or Illustrator user who has invested time and energy learning how to use the application. Are Graphic designers more intelligent than office knowledge workers? I don't think so. It's the interface itself that has made them more proficient.

Apple's IDE, Xcode, is actually quite powerful once you finally figure out what's what in their world. After spending some time using Xcode and not fully understanding the reasoning behind everything I think things finally clicked sometime this summer. After using Xcode for months I now finally understand the underlying principle behind Xcode's project structure. Like most things of this nature, once you finally understand it's not only simple but painfully obvious.

Xcode is not alone when it comes to applications that just make you feel stupid. I'm not going name any applications or peg them to the open source world or commercial software shops. What it does come down to however is complete user experience. It might not even be a question of the developers not caring. Rather, many times the developers forget what it was like to first start learning and using their own product. They become so immersed in their paradigm that it is obvious to them and very casually overlook the difficulties that new-comers might have with the product.

Although "Understanding Xcode Projects" published on the ADC is long overdue it is nonetheless a very elegant solution. No more than a few pages with accompanying annotated screen shots, "Understanding Xcode Projects" succinctly explains Xcode's philosophy. The document can prove useful to new-comers and experienced Xcode users alike. In about ten minutes you can look over the article and sit back and say "AHHH! So that's how things work around here." Rather than spend many frustrated attempts at tackling Xcode by the horns.

I think more developers should learn from this example; struggling with a user interface should not be viewed as a rite of passage. This is probably even more true in the open source world if only because technical writers are not as readily available. If you're a developer what's an hour spent preparing a help article like this one compared to the countless hours you've spent implementing all those neat features that you hope will get used?

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