You Don’t Need Word

You Don’t Need Word

Back in late August, my article on the Anatomy of a Software Bug got slashdotted. That prompted John Mitchell to post this missive over on John and I had a brief exchange back then, but that was early September—right about the time when my workload became such that I couldn’t really follow up on some of the issues raised in that discussion. Having a bit more time on my hands, I want to try to resolve them, or, at least, clarify a few points. This also serves as a good follow up to my earlier post on Word’s automated features, “Let Word Do It.”

John claims that we’ve become addicted to “complicatedness,” that there is some pathology that leads Microsoft, and other software vendors, to make software more complicated than it should be. While this is a very interesting thesis, indeed managing software complexity the substance of a number of debates within various academic circles under the general rubric of software engineering, John’s position on this has both a flaw in logic and a dearth of objective data to support it. I’ll discuss the lack of objective data first.

Every piece of software represents a particular solution to a mini-max problem. What’s a mini-max problem? Well, it’s a problem wherein one tries to maximize some outcome within a set of constraints that operate contrary to the outcome one is trying to maximize. The constraints tend to minimize the outcome, hence the term “mini-max.” There’s an entire field of study, known as “linear programming” that’s dedicated to finding efficient ways to solve such problems.

While linear programming has given us a number of very effective tools to solve mini-max problems, it requires quantifying both the desired outcome and the constraints, and herein lies one of the fundamental problems of developing a piece of software as a product for general consumption. The thing we’re trying to maximize is a subjective quality known as “user satisfaction.”

Right about now, at least some of you are saying, “What on earth are you talking about? It’s trivial to measure user satisfaction. J.D. Power and Associates does this all the time. All you do is develop an effective survey.” In essence, John says the same thing when he suggests that, “the proof is in the pudding.” While I might take issue with John’s particular formulation of that survey, which consists primarily of asking how many people curse the product, there is an even more fundamental problem with this approach.

Constructing some kind of user survey to measure user satisfaction is great for trying to figure out how well you’ve achieved the goal you set out for yourself, but, by that time, you’ve already made the crucial decisions with respect to the basic mini-max problem you’re trying to solve. While this might lead you to reasonably reach some ex-post-facto conclusions about “complicatedness,” it does absolutely nothing for you at the time when you’re making the decisions about what features you want to put into a product.

There are a number of things you can do, before you’ve actually developed a product, to try and figure out whether or not the particular set of features you’re planning to implement will maximize user satisfaction. I’ve blogged about this before, and we’ve refined the process even further for the next version of Mac Office. I’m itching to talk about some of the things we’re doing, but I can’t—at least not just yet. Nonetheless, it’s extremely difficult to measure the extent to which users will be satisfied with a given set of features until such time as you put the whole package in front of them. This virtually eliminates any possibility of objectively comparing completely different sets of features in terms of user satisfaction.

At some level, I think John recognizes this problem, because he introduces the notion of figuring out the difference between what users want and what users really need. Herein, however, lies the flaw in logic in John’s thesis. The word “need” simply doesn’t belong in any discussion about technology. Any attempt to inject the word “need” into a discussion about technology involves drawing an arbitrary, and often capricious, line between certain sets of features. Regardless of where you decide to draw that line, the mere act of drawing it amounts to begging the question.

Technology is entirely about something called the “value proposition.” At some level, every product, even products involving basic needs like food, shelter and clothing, involve a value proposition. Technology, however, has a fundamental difference from most other products in that technology involves a value proposition that many users don’t perceive for themselves until they start using that technology.

How many times have you used a particular piece of software for a while only to start wondering how you ever got your work done without it? How about specific features in the software you use? Yet, if you sat down and really thought about it, you really don’t “need” either the software or the particular set of features that you’ve come to perceive as being indispensable. You, like everybody else, use any given piece of software because, for you, that software presents the maximal value proposition relative to anything else available on the market.

In the brief discussion I’d had with John over on, I pointed out one rather undeniable fact: that Word is, by far, the best-selling word processor on the market. When I pointed this out, John said that I can’t have it both ways—that I either sit up and take notice of the fact that a number of people curse Word, and thereby take steps to simplify the product, or forever consign myself to some pathological addiction to “complicatedness.”

If this is the case, then Word has succeeded despite itself for reasons other than the basic notion that Word, despite all its funky quirks, still represents a maximal value proposition for the vast majority of people who buy word processing software. Nobody needs Word. If I can’t have it both ways, then, I would contend, we are all consigned to a belief that people making software-purchasing decisions are not making rational choices.

Now, some of my more astute readers will have picked up on the subtle distinction I’ve made between users and people making software-purchasing decisions. In large organizations, and even a few smaller organizations, the users are often not the persons making the software-purchasing decisions. I would contend, however, that user productivity represents no small factor in the software-purchasing decisions made in these kinds of organizations, and I really have little doubt that most organizations would drop Word in a heartbeat if they thought some other product would result in increased user productivity.

None of this is meant to sweep Word’s problems under the rug. Nor, for that matter, do I believe anyone can reasonably argue that I am ignorant of these problems. After all, my last post was a poetic tribute to some the very problems that are the substance of John’s thesis. There is still much that we can do to increase Word’s value proposition across the board.

The point of this discussion is to illustrate the difficulty of making sweeping value statements about any software product, and to show, at least in part, how such statements really don’t serve a significant purpose in terms of increasing the value proposition for wider ranges of users. To invoke the clichés, John’s “having it both ways” is my “two sides of the same coin.” If the ultimate goal is to maximize user benefits, then I believe my view is the more effective view. The reasoning behind this, however, is the subject of yet another post.



Comments (8)

  1. Trey Jackson says:

    I disagree with your statment,

    "most organizations would drop Word in a heartbeat if they thought some other product would result in increased user productivity"

    I work for Intel in a department that works closely with the chip designers. The decision as to which tool(s) are chosen to design the chips is very much NOT one of pure productivity. Management likes to say that productivity is a key component, but it is not.

    Politics and intertia play much larger roles in making the decision. I bet this is true at most other organizations/companies.

    Once tools reach a certain level of functionality, any tool will suffice. You can pound a nail in with a crescent wrench. At that point, the user’s previous experience, training, and work habits begin to dominate the equation of "productivity". I have seen several different instances where politics has played a much larger role in tool decisions.

    Changing tools, even for one that offers a promise of higher productivity, also incurs a large hit in productivity while people become accustomed to the new tool. File formats also play a huge role – the new tool will likely behave slightly differently with the old file formats, and this fear restricts movement.

    Interoperability often plays a huge role – and MicroSoft does great in that area. So, given just that fact, people will choose Word because it’s written and supported by the same people that wrote the operating system. It’s a "safe" choice by IT and they won’t get fired b/c 95% of the world is using MS. A department within a larger company won’t make a change away from Word even if they get 200% productivity boost because of the fear of interoperability, plus the politics of doing something different.

    I think your quote:

    "we are all consigned to a belief that people making software-purchasing decisions are not making rational choices."

    sums it up very nicely.

    (ps. I have nothing against Word, it appears to be a competent tool. I have found it frustrating to use, but I only use it twice a year.)

  2. There is no better IW-productivity tool than Word. Certainly not for developers who want to integrate their application in the IW productivity environment. And this is where Microsoft is a big step in front of the other players. They have recognized that simply delivering a word processing tool is not enough, Microsoft Word has become a platform that is delivering more value to the users!

  3. silas says:

    I was with you until 3/4s of the way down, when you restated your premise: "nobody needs Word." And that’s the problem with the whole thing. A lot of people think they do need Word. MS works very very hard to make people need Word and, failing that, to think they need Word. That’s the only factor I can point to with certainty that makes it the best-selling word-processing app out there.

    Don’t get me wrong: there may be other factors, including inherent quality. I don’t think it’s a bad product. I’ve been on a strict no-MS-software diet lately, and there have been a couple of times when I was sorely tempted to fish out my Word cd and install it. It’s a good program. But it’s not (necessarily) the best word-processing program out there, when you take away the "most-compatible with MS Word" factor. Nor is it the best value. Think about it: the one word processor that is by far the most expensive dominates the market. If people are really facing a neutral value proposition when buying software, that shouldn’t happen.

    But it does, because the value proposition is skewed from the beginning. Putting aside all of the marketing advantages MS has, there’s still the compatibility issue. Everyone thinks they must use MS Word to have documents that are compatible with other peoples’ documents. Granted, it’s not true, but they would rather spend hundreds of dollars and get complicated features they don’t (necessarily) need just for that certainty. Just to quell the fear that MS has aroused. I have shown them other programs (Nisus, Appleworks, OOo, etc.) that are MS-Word-compatible, and even faced with hard evidence they still hesitate to use anything else.

    The value proposition is skewed. They think they need Word. These are as undeniable as your sales figures. And as long as they’re true you can’t reasonably use those sales figures as any kind of measure of user satisfaction. Buyers may be making subjectively rational choices, but they are choices made without all relevant information, and thus not objectively rational.

    And I haven’t even touched on the issue that you yourself admit, i.e. users who can’t choose the software they use (lots of sales there), not to mention the convenience of certain sales channels (getting it direct from Dell or Apple or whoever vs having to hunt down other programs on Versiontracker). Again, I’m really not trying to hate on Word here, I think MS’s MacBU does great stuff. But equating marketing power with user satisfaction is extremely problematic.

  4. Erick says:

    If you will forgive my going somewhat off-topic, a little terminology lesson. It’s a pet peeve of mine when people introduce mathematical buzzwords to sound learned, only to misuse them. You write:

    ‘What’s a mini-max problem? Well, it’s a problem wherein one tries to maximize some outcome within a set of constraints that operate contrary to the outcome one is trying to maximize. The constraints tend to minimize the outcome, hence the term “mini-max.”’

    No, this would be a straightforward maximization problem! If there were never any countervailing constraints, most maximization problems would be pretty boring…

    A true mini-max problem has two sets of parameters, and seeks to choose of the first parameter so as to minimize the maximum value (or vice versa, maximize the minimum value) over the entire domain of the second parameter. For example, if one parameter is "the feature set of Word" and the other parameter is "an individual Word user", a reasonable mini-max problem might be to ask "Which feature set of Word will maximize its worst-case value to any user of Word?"

    In a mini-max problem, the conflict comes from shifting goalposts: for every possible feature set, there is a different user who will derive the least benefit from it. You can easily improve the feature set of Word for that particular user, but what if doing so causes another user to become the new bottleneck? It’s a much more subtle tension than that of a simple maximization problem.

    Let’s say we could measure value in fictitious units I’ll call "oohs". If the solution to the mini-max problem is exactly 100 oohs, the implication is as follows. There is feature set that is worth at least 100 oohs to every single Word user, but that’s the best _minimum_ value you could ever achieve. Even if there was another feature set that was worth 2000 oohs to 99% of the userbase, as long as some user only gets 99 oohs from it, it wouldn’t be the optimal mini-max solution.

  5. I was going to rant Erick’s rant, but he’s already done it for `mini-max.`

    So I’ll rant about your misuse of `linear programming` instead.

    The Wikipedia could help you a lot —

    <blockquote>In mathematics, linear programming (LP) problems are optimization problems in which the objective function and the constraints are all linear. Linear programming is the process of solving LP problems.</blockquote>

    <a href=""></a&gt;

    Note that this has no reference to mini-max, per se. Note as well that mini-max problems are not necessarily linear.

    Then you say this —

    <i>You, like everybody else, use any given piece of software because, for you, that software presents the maximal value proposition relative to anything else available on the market.</i>

    This is true, but it ignores several aspects of <i><b>why</b></i> this software I use has maximal value — most particularly, its lack of learning curve, relative to the other packages available. Learning to use a new package costs me — not in cash, but in time, energy, sanity points, and otherwise. Learning to use a new version of Word’s new features, likewise.

    Do you know what the single biggest factor in most people’s decision to buy Word is? I do. <b><i>It opens Word documents, reliably preserving the formatting and other options.</i></b> That’s it.

    It has nothing to do with the actual utility of the software, only with the fact that most word processing documents which are shared around originate in someone else’s copy, and/or need to be shared with someone else who uses Word — because it’s their company’s standard word processor, because someone inked a discount deal years ago for Windows, Office, etc.

    (Yes, the same applies to why most people choose Excel and Powerpoint. Exchange is a weirder thing, tied more to the investment in server technology, but it follows along the same line.)

    This could be changed — MS Word was once the best GUI word processor in the world, at a time when it wasn’t the only such. That time has long past — most people I know put it at MS Word 5.1a on the Mac, tied to Office 4.2.1, which didn’t really have a parallel on Windows. I’m not sure anyone considers Word for Windows ever to have been best-in-class….

    Ah well, that’s enough of my ranting for now.

  6. Rick Schaut says:


    I’m fascinated by the way in which Wikipedia can fully negate the substance of the linear programming course I took back in college–all over a difference in terminology.

    More importantly, however, you’ve fallen into the same fallacy of trying to draw some arbitrary line between what should and shouldn’t be valued. Please provide an objective definition of the phrase "actual utility of the software."

    Don’t worry. I won’t hold my breath waiting for that definition :-).