4.13 Politeness – A New Software Requirement

Polite computing as a new requirement of software design requires an attitude change, e.g. to stop seeing “users” as little children unable to exercise choice. Inexperienced users may let software take charge, but experienced users want to make their own choices. The view that “software knows best” does not work for computer-literate users. Perhaps once users were child-like, but today they are grown up.

Software has to stop trying to go it alone. Too clever software acting beyond its ability is already turning core applications like Word into a magic world, where moved figures jump about or even disappear entirely, resized table column widths reset themselves and moving text gives an entirely new format. Increasingly only Ctrl-Z (Undo) saves the day, rescuing us from “too clever” software errors. Software that acts beyond its ability thinks its role is to lead, when really it is to assist.

Rather than using complicated Bayesian logic to predict users, why not simply follow the user’s lead? I repeatedly change Word’s numbered paragraph default indents to my preferences, but it never remembers. How hard is it to copy what the boss does? It always knows better, e.g. if I ungroup and regroup a figure it takes the opportunity to reset my text wrap-around options to its defaults, so now my picture overlaps the text again! Software should leverage user knowledge, not ignore it.

Polite software does not act unilaterally, is visible, does not interrupt, offers understandable choices, remembers the past, and responds to user direction. Impolite software acts without asking, works in secret, interrupts unnecessarily, confuses users, has interaction amnesia, and repeatedly ignores user corrections. It is not hard to figure what software type most people will prefer given a choice.

Social software requirements should be taught in system design along with engineering requirements. A “politeness seal” could mark applications that give rather than take user choice, to encourage this. The Internet will only realize its social potential when software is polite as well as useful and usable.