Lessons from Dr Sheldon Cooper on user friendly software

I really like this video extract from the Big Bang Theory. (A very funny and intelligent sitcom if you haven’t seen it.)

Although it is designed to get laughs—and Jim Parsons’ (Sheldon Cooper) comic timing is spot on—it got me thinking about user friendliness of software and raised some serious questions like: What does “user friendly” really mean? Can it mean the same thing to all people? And, is there such a thing as software that is TOO user friendly?


My feelings on these issues can be best explained by telling you about the single most important piece of software that I use in my career—Microsoft Excel. Like many of my contemporaries, I started out with Lotus 1-2-3 in the late 1980′s. Then I used Joe Spreadsheet during university (hand’s up if you’ve even heard of this one!). I dabbled with Quattro Pro out of interest (loved the tabs), then suffered through 20/20 at my first job with DEC in 1991. Soon after this I stumbled upon Microsoft Excel and the first thing I remember thinking was how cool the gridlines were. Seriously, that’s what made me fall in love with it!

Anyway, the rest as they say is history, and I’ve been a loyal and committed Excel user ever since. Right up until a few years ago that is, when Microsoft released Excel 2007. That’s when I got burned. My loyalty and love was thrown right back at me! Excel 2010 then corrected some of the things that I hated with 2007, but nowhere nearly enough to win back my heart.

In my view Excel 2007 and 2010 are significantly worse products than the best version of Excel ever released—Excel 2003. Way, way worse. No comparison! Now you may totally disagree with me, but that’s actually part of my point. Software is not used in the same way by everyone. People have different needs, different skill sets, different priorities. What’s good for me as a serious financial modeller, whose career has been built around my spreadsheeting abilities, is not necessarily what’s good for someone who uses spreadsheets as a fancy reporting tool, or even someone just starting out in their finance career. I don’t envy Microsoft’s job in trying to please everyone (by all accounts there are over 100 million active/licensed users of Excel) but let me tell you how they’ve stuffed this product up for me, just to give you an idea of my pain:

What’s important to me as a financial modeller is: a) speed of modelling; b) accuracy of the end result; and c) ability to present results to end users in a nice enough way. That’s it! I don’t need a new fancy toolbar/ribbon, changes to my shortcut keys, a gazillion rows and columns, prettier charts, etc, etc. Not only do I NOT need these things, in many cases giving me these things—just in case I need them—actually takes away from the things I do need. Granted, none of these changes have negatively impacted either b) or c) above, but the effect on my speed of modelling has been monumental! And it’s not like I haven’t tried to learn how to use 2010 properly, it just does not function as well as 2003. Keyboard shortcuts—changed or missing, menus—hidden behind a daft ribbon, cell styles—slow and clumsy, options menu—complete mess. The list goes on. It’s so bad that many people who are financial modellers like me won’t switch away from 2003.

Far be it for me to say that Microsoft made a mistake here. Others more qualified than me have done a better job than I could do at spelling out the problems. What I will say is that whatever Microsoft’s market research showed, or even what the majority of Excel users (by number, surely not weighted by any measure of importance) said they wanted, means nothing to me or people like me. Yes you have a responsibility to all your users, but you have an extra responsibility to the users who really love you and depend on you.

The take-away message for me is … if you’re thinking of making changes to your product design and functionality, talk to your best users not your average users. When talking to your best users, ask them to think about less experienced users or users with lesser needs. Give them credit and assume they’re intelligent enough to think things through.

1 Comment so far Join the Discussion

  1. Brian

    30th August 2011 at about 6am

    Here, here, the conditional formating update allowing more than three conditional formats I use all the time and the pivot table interface is a lot better. Other than that, it is a downgrade across the board.

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