Matthew Bischoff

Hey, I’m Matt. I write software in New York.

Software Criticism

Critica

Criticism may not be agreeable, but it is necessary. It fulfills the same function as pain in the human body. It calls attention to an unhealthy state of things.
— Winston Churchill

Last week, I wrote a short blog post on my Tumblr commenting on the news that my former employer had released a new web application and critiquing the product strategy, calling it “pointless”. Apparently this struck a chord because minutes after I had shared my brief thoughts about the new Today’s Paper web app, I started receiving tweets, direct messages, and emails from former colleagues, friends, and followers. From what I’ve heard, it’s also generated several internal emails and conversations. Many of the messages I received raised the same question: why would I write this post?

The answer is simple: I care a lot. Software needs to be criticized to get better. 90% of it is crap, and very few people are willing to explain why. My blog is a place where I can express my opinion, and I have a strong opinion about this “new” product. I share my thoughts with the hope that they’ll make people think and encourage discussion, which is exactly what happened.

There are several arguments that people made about why I shouldn’t have written the post. These deserve to be addressed one by one:

Didn’t You Work For Them?

Yes, I did. I don’t any more and lack of a sane product strategy is one of the reasons why. A lot of the most amazing things we learn about how companies work are from people that used to work at them. Books like Hatching Twitter, articles from former Apple employees, and a lot of the best answers on Quora wouldn’t be possible without ex-employees speaking up. Learning requires opening up.

The people that worked inside an organization are the ones that can explain and critique it with the most insight. They also tend to be more emotionally invested in the company’s success. I plan to continue criticizing (and praising) the organizations I’ve worked for, and I hope others do the same.

Why You Gotta be So Mean?

Whenever someone accuses me of being mean, I stop to consider to whom I’m being mean. In this case, there are two groups of people I mentioned in the post.

The creators of the web app (designers, developers, editors, and product managers) The (potential) users of the web app

The only thing I say about the creators of the web app is that they are “truly great” at what they do and that their time should not have been wasted on something so silly. Doesn’t sound mean to me.

Can people’s feelings get hurt when something they work on is criticized? Absolutely, but that’s no fault of the critic. We don’t worry about Guy Fieri’s feelings before giving his restaurant a scathing review in The Times, and we shouldn’t be afraid to criticize software for this reason either.

Was I mean to the users? Well, I did say that many of them will likely die soon, but only as a way to cheekily explain the demographics demanding this product. Not mean, exactly, but a little heavy handed and likely unnecessary.

I’ve been criticized for lacking empathy towards members of this generation of people that are uncomfortable with The Times’s current offerings and prefer the simplicity of print. To the contrary, I think that generation is right. Many of the Times’s current products, especially the website, are confusing, outdated, and just plain hard to use. However, the solution is not to make yet another product. It’s to make the existing products great for everyone, just like Google and the iPhone are great for everyone. Good design is universal. No dumbing down necessary.

What’s Wrong With Skeuomorphism?

Nothing, except that’s not what this product is. It’s not just using skeuomorphic techniques to improve NYTimes.com, it’s literally another way to view the exact same content on the exact same platform. By my count there are at least 13 ways to read the Times: Paper, iOS, Android, Kindle Fire, Kindle, BlackBerry, Windows Phone, Web, Mobile Web, Replica, Times Skimmer, Time Wire, and now Today’s Paper. We don’t need more ways to read the same content that better imitate the past. We need the existing applications and websites to be much much better and focused on the future of news consumption.

The Team Had Fun

It’s fine for a couple of people to make a terrible product for fun or to learn, especially because it’s difficult to know if something will be good before it exists. But for a company that’s as large and well respected as the Times, it’s embarrassing to use the team’s enjoyment as a reason to release a product to the public. Plenty of products have been killed before release at The New York Times and this should have been one of them.

People Asked for It

Of course they did, but just because people ask for something doesn’t mean we should build it. Often, the way users phrase questions and requests is very direct: “You should do this”, but they really want us to do the thinking for them. No one asked for an iPhone before the iPhone was released, and yet hundreds of millions of people of all skill levels use and love these devices every single day.

It’s our skill and responsibility as creators and experts to understand and synthesize user feedback into great products, and not slavishly do what our users say, producing one more pointless product after another.

It’ll Make Readers Happy

Today’s Paper may very well make readers happy just like plenty of people are still happy with their dumbphones. That doesn’t make those phones good products. If the Times believes that Today’s Paper is really the right way to look at Times content, it should be the way the website and the native applications work, not a side effort that’s only available to subscribers and doesn’t even work on smartphones. This is simply a product that placates a vocal minority. These are the people that would still be asking for a faster horse years after the Model T was released. They will only drag the company and its products down.

John Gruber at Daring Fireball called Today’s Paper “utterly uncluttered”. He’s right but misses the larger economic point. This isn’t a sustainable way for the Times to publish content, even for only subscribers. It has no ads which means that if the website operated this way, the entire thing would be a money-losing operation. Gruber is presumably comparing it to the clutter of the NYTimes.com website, but guess what most of that clutter is: ads.

It’s Just an Experiment

This product is not an experiment. Experimentation is something you can do internally, via user testing, in private betas, or on whiteboards. Experiments don’t have revenue goals, and usually don’t require full-time engineers working for months. Experiments don’t have splashy launches and email campaigns to hundreds of thousands of users. Would I have criticized this publicly if it was just an experiment? Absolutely not.

“That sucks” is negativity. “That sucks, here’s why, and here’s how to fix it” is criticism, and it comes from a place of love. That’s the difference. — Alex Payne

In media like film, theater, television, and music, quality criticism is something that’s expected and encouraged. People looks to critics to tell them what’s good, what’s terrible, and why. In software, this same culture has failed to develop. Sure, there are review websites, but the main question they ask of software is: “does it work?” and not “should it exist?”.

We live in an environment where companies and individuals are constantly releasing new products, and the signal to noise ratio is incredibly low. We need to collectively grow a pair and become comfortable criticizing each other’s work. We need fewer products that are higher quality.

In order to produce better products, we must be willing to critique openly and honestly. We must accept that we will all fail. It’s not personal.