interesting interview with Anders Hejlsberg in which he makes some points about programming
Anders says that “good language design
boils down to assembling a team of people who have good
taste.” I couldn’t agree more. It’s absolutely vital to understand
your target customers so that you know what they will like and what they won’t like.
Developing that sense of good taste takes time and experience. You can build
that experience up by designing languages or APIs that you yourself would like to
use, if you consider yourself a good representative for your target users. But what
do you do if you are designing a language or API for a group of users who you don’t
represent, such as children?
This is where usability data is useful.
One of the biggest benefits of doing any kind of usability study is not the list of
usability issues or bugs that you collect. Instead, it’s the increase in customer
empathy and understanding that comes of watching someone work and observing their
work style and behavior. It’s illuminating to see how differently someone thinks
or works to the way that you would in that same situation. Gaining such an insight
is incredibly useful when you are designing any kind of product, be it a programming
language, an API or a GUI, especially when you are not representative of your users.
Instead of basing design decisions on what you would do, you can now base design decisions
on what your users would do.
Anders suggests that you don’t get as high a yield from usability studies for language
features as you do for IDE features. I think this is a reasonable statement to make
when you compare the results obtained from a 2 hour usability study on a programming
language or API with the results obtained from a 2 hour usability study on a GUI (with
some exceptions – see below). Most APIs and programming languages take more than 2
hours to really get to grips with. Instead of just relying on one single two hour
session per participant, API and programming language studies tend to demand more
longitudinal studies where you can observe developers working with the API or programming
language over a longer period of time, measured at least in days or weeks instead
of hours (the exception is an API or language that supports tasks that you expect
users to be able to complete in much shorter periods of time).
I’d argue that APIs and programming languages are interactive products, just as GUIs
are. They expose affordances which
indicate to the user the actions that the artifact makes possible. The big difference
between GUIs and APIs or programming languages is how those affordances are discovered
and learned, not whether or not they exist. That interaction between the user and
the perceived affordances of the product is an important aspect that needs to be understood
and designed. Usability studies are a very useful tool to help build up an understanding
of how that two way interaction between a programmer and the API or programming language
develops over time. With a programming language or API the interaction typically takes
place over a longer period of time than with a GUI, hence the need for studies that
take place over a longer period of time than GUI based studies.
As always, data obtained from usability studies should not be the only source of data
that you collect about your design. It’s always important to get a broad spectrum
of data. But usability data should be part of that spectrum.