Wednesday, September 29, 2010

And the winner is...

The iPhone 4.

The Droid X is an awesome piece of hardware. But my experiments with the various Android-based phones said to me that Android is still a work in progress. Each of them had odd bits of user interface that seemed unfinished or clunky or just plain badly thought out. After my brief experience with the Google hiring process it's pretty clear why that's true -- Google's hiring process, other than for a few superstars, has a built-in bias towards young mathematical types who recently took an algorithms course in college and also has a built-in filter to get rid of those of us who've been around long enough to know what we like to do and are good at doing. Youth has its advantages, but also its disadvantages -- young arrogant mathematical types rarely give much thought to user experience.

Which reminds me of an incident at a prior job. Me and my office-mate combined had maybe 15 years experience in the industry at the time, had actually used our product in production environments before joining the company that made it, and were now working on taking it to the next level with a new GUI and a new management infrastructure around our core data engine to make it easier to use in modern network environments. Our boss had about 20 years experience in the industry. So my boss assigns one of these young arrogant math PhD types to mock up a user interface for our project, we gave him the basic architecture and workflow and told him "make it easy to use." So he produces this mock up and calls me in to take a look at it and I scratch my head because I can't make heads or tails of what he's done, it isn't oriented around the workflow of any site admin that I've ever encountered. I call in my office-mate. He can't make heads or tails of it either. We ask this young brilliant mathematical type just out of college questions about how to do various site-admin-ish kinds of things, and he takes us on this long complicated set of procedures through a number of incomprehensible dialogs. My office-mate and I say "This doesn't seem like an easy to use interface for site admins." He goes, "but it's obvious! It's simple!"

So we look at each other, think, "hmm, he seems really sure about this, maybe it's just us," and call in our boss, just telling him "You have to look at this" but not why we want him to look at it. By this time we have 35 years of experience in the room, people who've actually used the technology in question in production environments. He runs through the same thing as we did, and comes to the same conclusion. By this time the arrogant young mathematical type is in pure snit mode. How *dare* we question his impeccable user interface! I explain to him that there's 35 years of experience in this room who've actually used the technology in production environments, so if we can't make heads or tails of it our customers will be utterly lost. "Then your customers are idiots!" he shouts.

Indeed. Indeed. But they are *paying* idiots. Which is what Apple understands. The customer may not always be right, but the customer is what keeps you in business, and customers want something that doesn't require a math PhD to understand or use. And in that regard, the iPhone despite its occasional glitches is still the one to beat, and Android still has a lot of growing up to do. As for that math PhD guy? Eventually after another design disagreement months later (on internals, not GUI -- we knew not to put him anywhere near the GUI by then) he stomped off and turned in his resignation because we didn't properly respect his brilliance, and my manager's manager talked him into working in another area of the company on another product rather than resigning outright, and eventually he turned in his resignation from *that* position after his tastes in user interface proved to be equally daunting for them for the same basic reason. Oddly enough, after a few years of seasoning elsewhere in the industry to brush the edges off his arrogance to turn it into less-obnoxious self confidence, he turned out to be a decent engineer... just don't put him anywhere near a user interface, for cryin' out loud. Which Google would have done immediately, if the Android user interface is any indicator.


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