Post Inspired By a Rands In Repose blog.

Back Then

Here’s the thing: I’ve been in software development for 20 years. Started with client-server. I actually deployed HyperCard client-server applications at a big medical device company. Back in the day. Then, Smalltalk client-server applications at a big medical device company. Back in the day, +1. Then a brief, faintly embarrassing period of Oracle Power Objects. Same company. Back in the day, +2. Same great boss — guy wanted to try everything, every new technology that came out. And he let me play with all of it.

Then came the web, and people who got their chops coding for the web are, in my opinion, a different breed of developer. Why? Because we weren’t necessarily people who cared about how much memory a float took up compared to a long. We weren’t bits and bytes guys. Not to say we were kiddie scripters, either, and we would be offended in future job interviews when the question was “what port is typically used for telnet?” Eff you, Priceline (love the Shatner though).

The successful ones were, and are, application developers combining several areas of expertise: software development, user experience design, interaction design, graphic design. At two ends of the stack, we became HTML wizards and SQL gurus, with stuff in between.


Nowadays, I’m in charge of a Java shop. While I have some bits and bytes players, I’m trying to convert them to what I am. I don’t need to build a runtime formula evaluation tool, because I can use the hell out of JEP (and in a past life used it to build out a sweet forecasting and analytics tool that got my company bought by a bigger fish). I’m not going to build a library that converts SVG to high resolution JPEG’s, I’ll use Batik for that. This doesn’t make me a kiddie scripter, it makes me a guy that’s going to use the work of bits-and-bytes people to do my job. I’m not building the girders, I’m building the building.

And that’s what I need — guys who can build apps that work, from the ground up, that look good, and ease a user’s pain without replacing it with a steep learning curve and a thousand clicks of death.

Back Then, Again

Back in the day, we didn’t have UxD, interaction design or graphic design — at least, not people that knew jack about software. So we became those people, and the ones that were good at it built applications deployed over the web that were sexy, did their job without getting in the way of the user, and did it with a minimum of animated fire GIF’s.

Granted, we all went through our phase of using massive JPEG’s with imagemaps for clickable areas. Hell, Netscape’s first home page was one big frickin’ GIF that probably brought ISP’s down to their knees. Made the lights dim in our IT department every time someone launched their browser.

But we learned. We stopped using ;, and we did it before browsers made us stop using it. We started thinking about how the users would use the tool, and started creating pathways through the software that optimized how we wanted the chief functionality of the tool to be used. We started shifting the least-used functionality to the nether regions of the user experience, calling them into play when it looked like the user was headed in a particular direction.

We have a keen eye for what works, and what doesn’t. We get the use of color, and we know when we’re overdoing it. We know that hiring a design guy will never, ever make our stuff look worse — but we’re confident in the knowledge that it will only make it incrementally better.

And we learned by looking at things that appeal to us on the web, sites that combine aesthetics with functionality in a way that just scratches us where we itch.

And when the tablet came… Well, that was a game-shifter. Now we want to inform our desktop browser designs with the efficiencies required of us by the real estate of the tablet. And let me tell you — web sites designed for the tablet rock on the desktop. The focus on user interaction and workflow is laser-sharp. Ancillary graphics are not at a minimum — they don’t exist. The wrong use of colors and images on a tablet creates a visceral response.

The UI gets out of the way. I’m betting on a lot of desktop sites looking like tablets, and I know that I’m tasking my team to pick up on the sensibilities embodied by good tablet app designs.

Don’t Insult Us, We Who Have No Name

We get all hot and bothered when a product development guy tells us he’s putting a user experience designer on our team, some dude with earrings who’s fresh out of college with exactly 1 year of experience under his hipster belt. 1 year. 1 year and a resume that includes screenshots of his customized Yahoo-generated web site, a form that he built all by himself that emails him your contact information, and a couple of animated GIFs. And maybe an auto-playing MIDI. Points for the earrings, but it’s very nearly an insult when this guy is put on the team, and one that is short-lived.

Respect the experience. If you’ve been doing this since the web was born, and doing it successfully, and made a career out of it, you’ve earned it.