Software is all about Context

Context is a very important factor in software development. Knowing the conditions under which your software will be used is an integral part of crafting a positive experience for your users. Many companies take this to heart and create truly engaging software that really connects with its users, but the vast majority miss the mark. While I’m sure I’d have no trouble pointing out a myriad of context-related issues in software made by Average Joe Developer, today’s focus will be on showing that even the top names in software aren’t perfect.

Exhibit A: The iPhone’s Clock.app

Let me tell you a story. A few weeks ago, the fiancĂ©e and I were scheduled to meet with a potential wedding venue early Saturday morning. Given that it was a bit out of the way and we tend to oversleep, we thought we’d be smart and set an alarm using the iPhone’s default clock app.

So Friday night, we set an alarm thinking it would wake us up Saturday morning. It did not; it turns out the alarm we set was for weekdays only! While this was entirely our fault, I’m still going to call Apple out on not taking context fully into account: when we set the alarm, why didn’t the app warn us that the alarm wouldn’t go off the next morning? I would imagine it’s very rare that anyone sets an alarm more than a day in advance. It’s much more likely that when someone sets an alarm at night, they expect it to wake them up the next day. This is a case where a neat feature is actually an annoyance because context isn’t handled as well as it could be.

Exhibit B: Google Maps

Continuing our story, while I was frantically trying to get ready I was loading Google Maps to get directions to our appointment. After punching in the address and asking it to route us there, Google Maps told me the trip would take over 9 hours. I freaked out! We don’t have 9 hours, we have 30 minutes; is this the right address? Did we accidentally book an appointment at a venue 9 hours out of Ottawa?

Actually, it turns out I had Google Maps set to give walking directions. Again, my fault, but again, where were the developers on this one? Did they really think I wanted to walk over 9 hours to get somewhere? Why not recognize that I was probably looking for driving directions and put a message at the top of the screen asking if that’s what I meant?

(For the curious, this story did have a happy ending: we made it there a slight 15 minutes late, and this was the venue we eventually chose for our wedding.)

Exhibit C: Firefox’s Spell-Check

Firefox is an incredible piece of software. It is currently the browser of choice for about one quarter of all internet users, and in many ways helped to revolutionize the web browser market. But one area where it hasn’t really advanced as far as it could have is its built-in spell checker. I don’t have a fancy story for this one; the data speaks for itself. Here is a list of words that show up as spelling errors in Firefox 3.6:

Some of the internet’s most popular websites:

  • YouTube
  • Facebook
  • Myspace
  • Flickr

Well-known web technologies:

  • Skype
  • Silverlight
  • Webkit
  • WordPress, CMS
  • PHP, CSS (it gets HTML)

Very common computer words:

  • Inbox
  • USB

Extremely successful desktop software:

  • Photoshop
  • PowerPoint

Apple products:

  • iPod, iPhone, iPad
  • Macbook
  • iMac
  • OSX (it gets Linux and UNIX)

These are all very common words in internet parlance, and it’s ridiculous that they are highlighted as possible spelling errors. Why not add them to the dictionary? A simple white-list that could be crowd-sourced to the community seems right up Firefox’s alley; I wouldn’t be at all surprised to see this addressed in a future release.

What can we learn from this?

My main take-away here is that context is a big factor in software development, and one of the hardest to get right. Even the big guns have room for improvement, which means the rest of us likely do as well.

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