Mar 30, 2004

clay on situated software

Everyone and their mother (referenced by design) will be pointing to Shirky’s latest, Situated Software. And for good reason – this is one of his best.

First, it’s great to finally read something about social software that isn’t about LinkedOrkutsers or collaborative wikis, but about small tools that have affordances only for the immediate communities they serve. Second, he calls out something critical that’s being lost in the outsourcing / offshoring noise – that “there’s also a lot of downsourcing going on, the movement of programming from a job description to a more widely practiced skill.” And third, there’s a very intriguing idea at the end of the piece re. eliminating the expectations that apps will/should live forever:

Expectations of longevity, though, are the temporal version of scale – we assume applications should work for long periods in part because it costs so much to create them. Once it’s cheap and easy to throw together an application, though, that rationale weakens. Businesses routinely ask teams of well-paid people to put hundreds of hours of work creating a single PowerPoint deck that will be looked at in a single meeting. The idea that software should be built for many users, or last for many years, are cultural assumptions not required by the software itself.

Indeed, as a matter of effect, most software built for large numbers of users or designed to last indefinitely fails at both goals anyway. Situated software is a way of saying “Most software gets only a few users for a short period anyway; why not take advantage of designing with that in mind?”

In most corporate environments, even the little apps that get built do end up lasting forever. And become more and more difficult to rip out and replace with the new new thing. Assuming that the tools do migrate to a point where it’s “non-programmers” that are building applications, should micro-apps designed for a few users be built with a “good until” expiration date, by design?