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MARTIN WALKER: Why Is Some Music Software So Difficult To Use?

Sounding Off By Martin Walker
Published August 1998

MARTIN WALKER: Why Is Some Music Software So Difficult To Use?

'That Martin Walker ', you probably think as you leaf through your new SOS, 'he must be a happy man. He's always getting to look at the very latest music software — and for free!' But no, he's complaining about it. Here's why...

Why is it that some music software is so difficult to use? After battling for ages to achieve what you set out to do, you often have the feeling that you've managed it despite the software, rather than because of it. Occasionally, I've even had to resort to writing down step‑by‑step details of how I finally managed to get something convoluted to work, because having to go through it all again doesn't bear thinking about. Sometimes, it seems that a program is determined not to let you find an easy way to do what seems to you basic and obvious. The solution may still be only a keyclick away, but unless the manual and on‑line help can point you in the right direction, you have to rely on the intuitiveness of the user interface. Whatever the complexity of the underlying software engine, it is this interface that makes or breaks software as far as the user is concerned.

Of course, this is just as important when designing hardware, but here there are other constraints. On a typical synth module, for instance, there is a limit to how many knobs and buttons will fit on the designated size of front panel. However, the software user interface need suffer from no such limitations; virtual front panels can be programmed in many different ways.

So why is some software still so difficult to use?

Perhaps the answer lies in the way software is put together today. Many modern applications are so huge that they are under continual development by teams of programmers, with several different groups working on different aspects of the whole package. This can make it difficult to keep an overall view; even if one group has a great idea to make their part of the program easier to use, it may be discarded for the sake of keeping a consistent user interface. Another, more fundamental aspect is that the programmers themselves are often too close to their work — too focused on algorithms and bug‑hunting — to see a more elegant way to the same end. The task of altering software with an over‑complicated user interface to one that is refreshingly simple is also a pretty thankless one. An elegant, easy‑to‑use interface hides a huge amount of extra work — the simplicity of the end result is largely because of all the extra hidden software intelligence doing additional work under the surface.

Such transparent simplicity can even work against a product, since a huge number of obvious new features is likely to sell more units than newly‑found simplicity and ease of use.

And so we end up with situations where some developers are so proud of their software engines that they scorn anyone who is not prepared to battle though the impregnable user interface. Of course, these tend to be the applications that end up with large libraries of presets — users want the end results, but few have the time or the inclination to devote large number of hours locked away with the manual to work things out for themselves. I can see the problem from both sides, as I have been a software and hardware developer, but am also in the privileged position of seeing much of the latest PC software for review in SOS. It saddens me to see software that contains so many clever ideas lost behind an unwieldy user interface, and conversely, software selling on the basis of its amazing graphics, even though there can be little of substance beneath.

Revolutionary interfaces, such as the original Steinberg Cubase Arrange page, tend to be designed from scratch by extremely talented individuals or a small group of programmers with a vision. However, once software gets large enough to acquire an inertia of its own, it is almost impossible to make such revolutionary changes any more — there are simply too many other features that would have to be altered in order to work with the new concepts. So we are left with evolution rather than revolution, and people become locked into using a particular piece of software simply because despite its obvious faults and limitations, the thought of starting again with a new package just doesn't bear thinking about.

Next time you are tempted to buy a new piece of software, don't just look at the list of features. Long after their gloss has worn off, it will be the user interface that counts — that thin veneer between man and machine that sometimes wears a bit too thin.

If you'd like to air your views in this column, please send your ideas to: Sounding Off, Sound On Sound, Media House, Trafalgar Way, Bar Hill, Cambridge CB3 8SQ.

Any comments on the contents of previous columns are also welcome, and should be sent to the Editor at the same address. Email: