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I'm a hobbyist software developer who dutifully looks at UX to better design software with the user in mind. I appreciate the nitpicking that UX does for three main reasons:

  • The user's benefit (familiarity, ease of use, etc)
  • Financial return (poor usability turns away customers)
  • Time saving (extra time spent designing = less time spent explaining)

Naturally, after working on making everything great for other people, I am struck by how annoying some developer tools are to use. Shouldn't they be the first to implement good UX practices, something which can only have positive effects on the software being developed?

I'm aware of the long-term efficiency vs. easy learning curve argument, but here we're talking about actually decreasing long-term efficiency because there are so many things to remember that it's easy to forget and have to re-learn.

So to sum up, is there a logical, research-backed, or practical reason behind constructing developer tools differently from end-user applications, from a UX point of view?


Readers who don't like long posts can stop here. The text below is just to back up the stuff I said above.


Before you all scream out that i have committed the sin of the unsupported assumption, here are some examples from common developer tools that should help back up my reasoning. And, granted, not all tools are bad (I personally find IntelliSense, for instance, quite UX-optimised)... But too many are.

The PHP Language

Its built-in functions have all kinds of flaws. The function implode(), that joins an array of strings using a delimiter, for example:

  • is named differently from other languages (missing user familiarity)
  • has a non-descriptive name (implode has no connection to the physical fabric strings nor to the idea of arrays)
  • has a different naming pattern from other string manipulation functions within PHP (inconsistency)

The Eclipse IDE

Annotated screenshot of the Eclipse IDE

Some things I couldn't highlight from the screenshot:

  • Opening dialogs is slow and unresponsive (at least on a mediocre machine)
  • Changing simple things like element properties requires 3-step interaction vs. one ideal step
  • the XML builder is cumbersome and its dialogs are visually heavy
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    Hmm, my guess is that developers aren't grandmas or novice users who need the UX; In huge dev systems, UX isn't the number one priority.
    – user49231
    Jul 22, 2014 at 18:42
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    This isn't really a question with a correct answer. It's more of a rant that you don't find some developer apps particularly user friendly. Maybe they are, maybe they aren't, but all this question does is say "These apps suck, am I right?" which is they type of question described in the "What type of questions should I avoid asking?" section of the help center.
    – JonW
    Jul 22, 2014 at 19:48
  • @JonW The tone of writing probably conveyed the wrong intention. As a dabbler in UX, I am genuinely curious whether there is a principle behind this decision. I edited the question to better reflect this, but feel free to edit it yourself if you can help me clarify.
    – LS97
    Jul 22, 2014 at 20:32
  • try Sublime Text ;-)
    – Toni Leigh
    Jul 22, 2014 at 20:40
  • I'd love to see this topic get asked in the appropriate areas of the site, since there are some interesting things that can be looked at in more detail. Programmers/developers are a specialized group of users too!
    – Michael Lai
    Jul 22, 2014 at 23:13

2 Answers 2

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Don't move my cheese

I think this is a classic problem where the developers who've created these tools haven't been able to anticipate how their applications are going to be used. When you can anticipate everything, you're able to design a great UX on the first try. But that just isn't happening here. And then as features are added, they don't bother reorganizing their application out of fear of upsetting their existing users. This is a valid fear.

As an example, I think of Visual Studio 2013 as a very nice and intuitive application even though it's a behemoth. But my opinion of Visual Studio is largely based on my familiarity with it. It's that familiarity that makes me productive every day. So breaking that by redesigning and reorganizing the entire application might be applauded by some, but it would upset me.

A compromise

Microsoft has reorganized Visual Studio over the years to make room for new features. But they try to make their changes relatively small from version to version so people like me don't have to relearn how to do everything. I do think this is a good approach.

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  • I think that's a valid point. I myself felt disoriented when Office 2007 switched to ribbon style, because of the whole familiarity thing, although the change offered objective advantages to Office's large non-technical user base. However, Microsoft had the courage to do so with Office, what's the difference with VStudio? (I'm not referring to ribbons, just general reorganising from scratch)
    – LS97
    Jul 22, 2014 at 20:39
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Being a developer in PHP, Android, C# and working professionally with SharePoint I can only applaud this question. In many developing languages and IDEs it sometimes looks like someone came up with an idea and it was implemented as a button, a menu item or a keyboard shortcut. Without thinking of that this feature will actually be used by someone.

Sometimes it feels like it's made a sport to hide features in an IDE or a programming language. This is especially true in SharePoint where it's ridiculously obvious that feature developers of the pile of code work in isolated silos. It's has evolved to the better, but there are still a lot of inconsistency in the product.

So what do you do? You learn to live with the flaws of the product/language/IDE you're using because you have to, or you develop a new one. That's why we have thousands of programming languages and frameworks around, which developers need to learn over and over again. Of one don't like the reality of this occupation - one should change focus and tasks. You have come a long way on your journey to become a real UX professional, my friend!

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