UX Lessons from Visual Studio

Commonly, when people think "user experience", they think about screen designs. Apps, web pages, Figma -- all that stuff. The shift from UI design to UX alone is a nod to this practice being more than skin-deep, but I still think a lot of the deeper behavioral aspects of user satisfaction are lost on many -- especially people who have only a casual interest in UI/UX.

I believe there are clues all around us, though, that we can take advantage of if we pay attention. I'll begin with the premise / reminder that real usability is completely invisible. You can only see usability by the absence of impediments to usability. In short, a system is usable when it does exactly what a user expects, even if they can't articulate those expectations.

One of the best examples of invisible usability can be found in Visual Studio, which has been a market-leading IDE for decades now. Built by developers for developers, they've gotten a lot of things right, and even though you're probably not building a tool for use by developers, some of these lessons likely can apply for you, too.

Starting Fresh

Right off the bat, Visual Studio shows its usability by setting users up to be successful when working with a new project. Pick any template you like in Visual Studio, create a new project from it, and it will build successfully. While it might not seem like a big deal, it makes a lot of difference for a new user learning one of these technologies. The ability to start from a solid foundation gives that user confidence to build on that new solution.

What's the lesson? Be aware of the "getting started" experience for your users. Anything you can do to start a user more quickly and with more confidence will help them start using your software with confidence. When users get started with confidence and gain momentum, they're more likely to persevere a bit more if they get stuck later, too.

Save Always

Another subtle way Visual Studio helps is one you probably never gave a second thought. No matter what state your working files are in, you'll never mess one up so badly that Visual Studio won't let you save your work:

A more elegant take on this is to save automatically, so if something goes really wrong, you have a recovered version of your work (which Visual Studio obviously does). Note that automatically saving can actually introduce some small usability hiccups of its own, but that's a problem for another day.

What's the lesson? Document-based applications like Visual Studio and office apps (spreadsheets, docs and the like) typically consider this sort of behavior table stakes these days, and it's not likely you're building one of these, but watch out for behaviors that cause a user to not be able to save work-in-progress. In a UI, you may run into this if you've got a bunch of required fields on a page, and as the field count goes up (and maybe the page count, too), expect that your users' frustration level will go up, too.

It's actually a lot more likely that you'll run into this problem in your APIs. For example, here's a simple method I used in a post about fluent validation:

        public ActionResult CreateDealer(Dealer dealer)
            Guard.Against.AgainstExpression<int>(id => id <= 0, dealer.Id, "Do not supply ID for new entity."); 

            var dvalidator = new DealerValidator();
            var result = dvalidator.Validate(dealer);
            if (result.IsValid)
                _sampleData.Add(dealer);  // SaveChangesAsync() when working with an actual data store
                return CreatedAtAction(nameof(CreateDealer), new { id = dealer.Id }, dealer);
                return BadRequest(result);

While this method effectively validates inputs, the return results to the user aren't especially helpful, and as an object like this scales up in size, it's more likely that a consumer will have partial inputs that don't pass all validation criteria. Rather than preventing this from saving altogether, consider structuring an object like this so that as many values as possible are optional for saving -- even if they're needed in order to have a "valid" object.

In this simple example, we can create a result type that appends a ValidationResult property to the model. We'll return this instead of the "naked" object to show the validation propertied next to the model. The result object is preferrable to embedding a ValidationResult in the model because this keeps the request intact -- there's no reason for the ValidationResult to be part of the CRUD requests.

    public class ModelValidationResult<M, V> where V : AbstractValidator<M>, new()
        public ModelValidationResult(M model)
            this.Model = model; 
        public M Model { get; private set; }
        public FluentValidation.Results.ValidationResult ValidationResult { get; set; }
        public bool Validate()
            V validator = new V();
            this.ValidationResult = validator.Validate(this.Model);
            return ValidationResult.IsValid;

With Validate in the Dealer object, the controller method also becomes a bit simpler:

         public ActionResult CreateDealer(Dealer dealer)
            Guard.Against.AgainstExpression<int>(id => id <= 0, dealer.Id, "Do not supply ID for new entity.");

            ModelValidationResult<Dealer, DealerValidator> res = new ModelValidationResult<Dealer, DealerValidator>(dealer);
            _sampleData.Add(dealer);  // SaveChangesAsync() when working with an actual data store
            return CreatedAtAction(nameof(CreateDealer), new { id = dealer.Id }, res);

Note that I left the guard clause in place here -- there will still be some validations that really need to prevent saving bad data, but now that these changes are in place, it's possible to save an object with incomplete data.

This technique won't work in all cases, but consider it if you can support saving objects with a minimal set of data and check for a fully-populated object later.

And more!

If you view Visual Studio with an eye to borrowing UX techniques, you'll see more lessons like these - the Dynamic Validation example I covered earlier is an example. Since you're probably not building an IDE or even a tool for developers, you'll need to interpret some of the techniques liberally, but I assure you the lessons are there. You may also see some negative usability examples -- in fact, sometimes these are easier to see because they get in our way and draw our attention.

If you're interested in source code for this examle, you can find it on Github: https://github.com/dlambert-personal/CarDealer/tree/Guard-vs-validate

Home PC administration — another lost opportunity

I've written in the past about places where Microsoft could absolutely *own* the infrastructure of the home by establishing a beachhead in the living room -- not to mention the previous assertions about their development tools.

I still believe quite strongly that a well-targeted home computing platform is just a couple of software tweaks away for Microsoft.  Today's edition is all about authentication.  I've got a bunch of PC's at home, including some VM's.  I've also got a Drobo 5N and a PS3 and a bunch of networking equipment.

You know what stinks?  I need to set up logins on every single one of these devices individually, and they're not connected to one another (so "Fred" on one box isn't really the same login as "Fred" on another box).


Microsoft, give me a lightweight Active Directory for the home -- something I can obtain without buying a Windows Server license, okay?  Here's a hint: if you built this into thew new XBox, I'd buy one, and I bet a bunch of other people would, too.  Let me use this for DNS, so I can type "router" into my browser and actually get my router, instead of making me set up a HOSTS file on every single PC I own.  By the way, how many average consumers would even know that's possible??

I fully expect that the new XBox, when it arrives, will let me stream photos and music off my Drobo, but if you want to really take this idea to the next level, how about selling us a Pogoplug -type of device I can give to my Mom & Dad so I can (1) set up user names for them, and (2) let them see photos that I don't plan on uploading to Flickr, etc.?  The idea here, by the way, since I'm spelling everything out in excruciating detail, is that just about every family has one or more members somewhere who (a) own a gaming system, and (b) understand enough about computers to be the family SysAdmin.

Get it??

Oh, and by the way, since you've given up on Windows Home Server for reasons I've never quite been able to fathom, and since you now aspire to be a "devices + services" company, why don't you just go ahead and buy Drobo and make their stuff work with yours?  I'd happily plug mine into a new XBox.

I swear, if Microsoft were able to get their collective heads out of whatever orifices they're lodged within long enough to make an XBox that actually acted like it was part of a family, they'd crank up another WinTel-style monopoly to last them a good dozen more years.

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Microsoft still struggling to put pieces together

I've been a Microsoft developer for a lot of years now.  As such, I'm intrinsically motivated to want to see them succeed.  For that reason, it's painful to see what's become of the Microsoft juggernaut.  Office hasn't given us a meaningful improvement since somewhere around Office '97.  Windows fared a little better, probably due in no small part to the dismal showing of Vista, which made Windows 7 look like a breath of fresh air.  Despite this, I still think Microsoft fields the best set of developer tools, top to bottom, of anyone, and I'd love to keep developing solutions with them.

Microsoft Office Mobile on Windows Phone
Microsoft Office Mobile on Windows Phone (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a fan of Microsoft, then, I'd love to see Windows 8 take off -- on the desktop, tablets, phones -- everywhere, but it's not, and I don't have to look to far to understand why.  I recently upgraded three machines at home from Windows 7 to Windows 8, and I have to admit that the tablet features appear to have been duct-taped onto Windows 8 with little regard to optimizing the experience for either type of client.  I can only imagine what the phone experience is like.  I'm still finding myself at a loss for where various bits and pieces have wandered off to.  Thank God for search, or I very well might have downgraded by now.

Worst of all, there are signs that Win 8's problems are a bit more widespread than my own personal adoption headaches.  Well-known developer evangelist Rocky Lhotka wrote a post this week addressing licensing headaches that could very well keep enterprise customers from adopting WinRT for internal applications, and MVP John Petersen wrote about the continued lack of applications for Windows 8.  Are these problems affecting Microsoft's bottom line?  It may be too early to call, but reports indicate that Microsoft is cutting prices on Windows and Office, and that's not a good sign.

As far back as I can remember, Microsoft has been king of the "platform".  They've always understood that there's a synergistic relationship between OS, applications, developer tools, and users.  It's possible to be successful successful in one or two of these areas, but if you're able to leverage success in one area to grow in another, the leverage is tough to beat.  It's too late for Microsoft to win mobile by meeting Apple or Android in a heads-up battle.  Same goes for tablets.  If Microsoft hopes to be relevant again (let alone dominant), they need a holistic solution that blows open a market that Apple and Google don't already own.

So, what's left?  Unfortunately, there's very little obvious green field left, but the one real hunk of market where Microsoft actually holds the high ground is entertainment -- namely, Xbox.  Sadly, Microsoft has been running Xbox like its own little company since Day 1, so although it works really well with Windows, there's so much more synergy to be had in home computing and entertainment if Microsoft would merely re-assemble pieces and parts they already own into a platform that would actually add value in the home.

Curious?  Stick around -- next time, I'll lay out the product that could save Microsoft if they'd just break down some walls and build it!

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