A day in the trenches

I got up at 5 this morning to spend the day at Product Support Services answering phones: today was the day the Blaster worm launched its second wave. And by a startling coincidence, the person at the station next to me was Michael Howard our Senior Security Program Manager and author of Writing Secure Code. Getting Michael Howard to help you secure your computer is like getting Lance Armstrong to help you change a flat tire on your bicycle.

As enlightening yet humbling experiences go, for a software designer, it's hard to top (1) watching a usability session, and (2) answering product support calls. You get to observe users -- customers, the people your job it is to make more productive -- struggle with the software you helped create.

Usability sessions are particularly frustrating since you are hidden behind a one-way mirror, watching somebody struggle to accomplish something you designed to be the most obvious thing on the planet. It's a hard lesson to learn: Not everybody is a geek like you. (Watching a usability session is a lot like being a member of the studio audience at The Price Is Right trying to help the contestant on stage guess the price of a new car.)

Product support calls let you participate in the other end of the pipeline. The software is written, it's out there, and now you have to pay for all your mistakes and bad designs when people call in with their problems. It's software karma.

Comments (7)
  1. Kevin Westhead says:

    I really enjoyed this blog; very informative.

    Could you expand on the topic of "usability sessions". What type of users do you invite and how many? What is the structure of the sessions, i.e. what are the users expected to do? Do you invite the same users back after you make changes based on what happened during the sessions?

  2. Andreas Häber says:

    Just guessing here, but maybe http://www.microsoft.com/usability/ will give you some answers to your questions about usability sessions.

    NB! I’m just guessing here, since I don’t know if this really is what Raymond Chen is doing :)

  3. Kevin Westhead says:

    Thanks Andreas, that’s very useful.

  4. Sr says:

    I hafe a ?, if you were to blurt "Linux rules all!" one day at work, would you be fired?
    It’s prolly aboot the equivalent of going to a security conferance and screaming "Windows is secure!"
    hehe j/k
    In any case the worm is a major issue..
    I’m surprised people even released ‘auto-hacker/auto-r00ters’ for the vuln.
    but in any case, bye

  5. Raymond Chen says:

    No I wouldn’t be fired. In fact, people might even expect it of me. I’ve had a linux box running in my office for years. Read the linux CREDITS file.

    (Thanks, Andreas for the link to the Microsoft usability site. I should’ve linked to it myself. Someday I’ll write stories "from the trenches of a usability session" to give a better idea of what it’s like.)

  6. I love your Lance line so much I’d like to use it as a quote in a piece I’m writing. If the other email I have for you isn’t correct, could you possibly take a moment to let me know on this one if I may use it? Happy to explain the piece. trim the nospam from the email to make it work, she said in paranoia ;-)
    Excellent blog BTW

  7. Raymond Chen says:

    Commenting on this article has been closed.

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