Useless

Many software developers have a pet peeve about customers calling their software “useless” (see here and here). It’s absolutely true that it can be infuriating to have all of your work declared “useless” because you didn’t implement some fringe feature. The uncomfortable truth, however, is that sometimes it’s true. The absence of a single feature really can render your software useless.

An alternate rendering of “useless” is “without use”. Or, in the semantics of software, “without a use case”. In software, a use case is a way of mapping out user interaction with software. It is generally a list of steps required to achieve a goal. When we start to understand “useless” in this way it becomes easier to see circumstances that would indict supposedly capable software as useless.

Imagine a microwave that didn’t let you set the time. You could no longer start it and walk away, trusting it to stop on its own. Thinking back to use cases, we can’t claim to meet a use case if a step is missing. The lack of a timer means that a whole class of use cases is eliminated. If one of those is the only use case of the owner, it really is useless to them. And importantly, it doesn’t matter what else the microwave can do.

I was reminded of this lesson with a recent Google Docs near-disaster1. I used Google Docs with a class project as I thought it would be a great answer to the need for collaboration and shared editing of the assignment. I had used Google Docs in the past for similar purposes but normally I would copy and paste into some other program (like Apple’s Pages) to do final formatting and printing. As my group’s document got larger, I decided I would use Google Docs the whole way through, saving myself the time it would take to copy, paste, and reformat. I did all my formatting in Google Docs and had a pretty nice looking document. When it came to getting the document out of Google Docs, however, the formatting would mess up in some significant way. It didn’t matter if I downloaded it as a PDF, Word doc, or other format the resulting document would be incorrectly formatted2.

Google Docs had gotten me 90 percent of the way there. Without that last 10 percent, however, the software was effectively useless for me. It didn’t matter what else it could do. It didn’t matter that I could collaboratively edit, or browse past versions, or view the document on my iPhone. It couldn’t finish the job.

As a result I’ll never use Google Docs except as a “roughing out” tool again (at least not for a few years).

This is part of the reason focus is so important in software. If you try to do too many things, and you do them all 80 or even 90 percent of the way, for many users you have created something that is no more valuable than if you had done nothing. Think about that. Even worse, you can actually create negative value, because you have convinced them to trap their data in your system that now can’t complete the job. It’s better to pick only those things you can do 100 percent and know that, at least in that area, you have created value for your customers.


I say near-disaster because printing directly to a printer did have the correct formatting, or correct enough that I felt okay turning it in. Return

This is all through the “Download As…” function of Google Docs, rather than some non-supported browser print-to-PDF functionality. Return

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4 thoughts on “Useless

  1. Declaring something “useless” because it doesn’t cover your individual use case is frustrating because it implies that your use case is the only one that is of value. Since I never print out documents, GDocs is incredibly useful and Pages is of little to no value to me. Pages is a very good page-layout tool, but I never need its core competency, so I never use it.

    “But it couldn’t print! That’s a basic function of a word processor!” one could argue, but GDocs doesn’t see it that way. Many people (such as myself) never print out GDocs; they are created and distributed in a purely digital/link-based format. Apple gets similar frustrations when they remove things like DVD drives. It’s frustrating for some people who use that feature quite a bit, but for what it invisions the most common future use case to be (or what it could be), something like document printing is an “nice to have” feature, not a requirement.

    I think the frustration is that why have document export in there if it isn’t reliable? That’s also assuming most people use Google Docs for complex document creation. Most don’t create complete documents and for simple documents, export works fine (in my experience) and is certainly more valuable than if there were no document export.

    As usual, the best tool is the one that is best suited for the task at hand.

    • I agree with what you’re saying, though I would contend that many of the people that declare something useless are speaking, implicitly, about their own use cases. They probably consider their use case of higher value than others because people in general are short-sighted and self-involved, but if pressed I don’t think they would deny that there may be other use cases that the software meets.

    • Also, I think you may have hit on the bigger issue here, which I didn’t see when I wrote this. The issue with Google Docs was that it offered an export that didn’t work as I expected. They could have solved the problem in two ways, either by having an export that maintained full fidelity, or by removing the export altogether.

  2. I think you might be giving too much credit to critics. Many seem to take the attitude of this individual http://productforums.google.com/forum/#!topic/docs/1RDus7hqn2U saying that since Google Docs converts Office documents (and strips their formatting) then “What’s the point?”

    Microsoft Excel offers export of their Excel workbooks to other formats such as CSV, Excel 97, etc. These conversions are lossy and will result in a loss of formatting and, in some cases, completely unusable data. But in some situations it works, thereby it has some value. Removing it because it doesn’t have full fidelity would be a little harsh.

    Google Docs doesn’t view itself as merely a Microsoft Office suite in the cloud. It’s more like CSV (in a way), in that it views itself as a different file format and different competencies. It offers a convenience export/import from Google Docs for those situations where it will work, but it won’t work in complex situations. Managing the expectations of the user is a tricky thing. Especially when their expectations are based on a paradigm that the developer is intentionally trying to change.

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