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Matthew Bischoff

They design & develop apps at Lickability and post about tech & culture here.

Software Paper Cuts

The word ouch written on a pink background

I’ve been using software every day for almost 20 years. I use it to do my work, create things in my spare time, socialize, relax, and so much more. And if you’ve met me or been reading this site for a while, you know I have very strong opinions about how it should be designed and crafted. But by far, my strongest belief about software is that almost no one pays enough attention to the paper cuts. In the field of interaction design, a paper cut bug is “a trivially fixable usability bug”. The term comes from the Ubuntu team, which decided in 2009 to prioritize fixing lots of these niggling issues. GitHub followed suit in 2018.

Running up against a paper cut bug feels a little bit like getting a physical one: not the end of the world, but certainly unpleasant. These types of tiny annoyances accrete over time, especially when no one is paying attention to them. In a single day of using my phone, I encounter dozens of these minor bugs that each annoy me just a little bit, making the task I’m trying to accomplish just a little bit more complicated.

For example, I might notice a button that’s enabled even though it can’t do anything, or a form field that has a scroll bar even though there’s no scrolling content. The result is that I trust the software I use less. When software isn’t polished, when it’s full of things that feel like paper cuts, it becomes less joyful and more frustrating. It sucks all the opportunity for delight out of the room.

The more insidious thing about these bugs is that they’re rarely reported by users or caught by automated testing tools because they’re too small to complain about or too obscure to write tests for. Great QA testers can find and file these types of bugs, but they usually flounder at the end of a long backlog of new features. This means that if you’re an engineer on a piece of software, you’re the person who’s best able to notice and fix these bugs. Yes, you might have to convince your boss or your product manager to set aside some time every so often to do so, but I promise your users will be grateful, and your product will improve in meaningful ways if you do.

What kinds of things should you be looking for? How can we notice paper cuts when they’re such a part of our daily reality in every app we use? Here’s a list of some of the most frequent paper cuts I see. I hope it helps in your quest to smooth out the edges of your software—to paint the back of the fence.

Common Paper Cuts

I challenge you to use your own app with fresh eyes on Monday morning. After an hour, are you pained by proverbial paper cuts? What are the bugs you’ve hit so many times in the software that you forgot they were bugs? You know you can fix those, right? Well, get to it.

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