What have we wrought with updates?

15 Aug 2017

My computer usage has changed quite a bit over the last few years. Outside of work hours I now mostly use my iPad for casual computering, such as browsing, email, social media and so forth. My MacBook is reserved for heavier lifting, like bulk photography editing with Lightroom or Garageband loop creation.

This means, I now only open it up once or twice a week, or if I’ve been away on a trip, even less frequently. And coming back to it even after a couple of days is a fairly tedious and horrible experience.

And it’s all the fault of people like me (at least former me when I worked on apps).

It goes like this: I open up my computer, and immediately my password manager will need an update. Perhaps also my text editor. Or perhaps Little Snitch. I have to wade through a series of dialogs as usually at least one or two bits of software will be shouting “forget that task you wanted to do, I AM SO GREAT I HAVE NEW THINGS”, when all I want to do is some quick task. Oh, what’s that media editor app that’s cloud based, you’ve forgotten my login so I have to dig out my password again from my password manager (assuming it’s finished its update).

And so on and so forth. Mostly from apps that care about their user interface a lot, which is why I bought them in the first place.

Being a casual computer user is a fairly horrible user experience it turns out.

When I used this computer multiple times a day this didn’t bother me. Indeed, the periodic update was new and exciting. As indeed I felt when writing applications for people; I couldn’t wait to tell them about the awesome new things I’d just added for them! As developers our products are our things of which we’re rightly proud, and we’re eager to share. But we forget that our users aren’t like us a lot of the time. Oh, our echo chamber in twitter is just like us and reinforces the idea that we should be issuing an update every week or so. But outside of our social media bubble, things are more annoying.

It is made worse because I know things can be better. iOS updates my apps constantly without interrupting me. I just pick the device up and get on with my tasks. It’s painless and you forget it’s even happening unless you happen to review the updates list in the app store for some reason.

The alternative of not doing updates is terrible – mostly wearing my security hat for this. You really should keep your software up to date people.

But desktop app developers really do need to learn that your app isn’t actually the centre of your users world. Do update your app frequently, but give the user the option to just have them apply silently at some safe point. I know that’s hard, but solving hard problems is why your users give you money to make great products.

The obvious real time killer is when you turn on your computer and so many apps do this you spend half an hour writing a blog post about why they annoy you. What was it I was just about to do?