We still need to create better software

I went to Office Depot yesterday intending to buy padded envelopes and managed to leave with three new pieces of software (along with a ream of paper, a flash drive, and the aforementioned envelopes), which I blame on the Turbo Tax promotion the store is currently running.

Though I haven't yet been able to psych myself up to actually install TT, I was excited enough at the prospect of being more anal than ever about my personal finances that I popped Quicken into the computer as soon as I got home. And, well, hmm.

Not having the benefit of much experience with earlier versions of the program, I can't say for sure whether Quicken 2006 represents much of an improvement, if any at all. I can say that it's somewhat underwhelming. The UI manages to be both too rudimentary and far too busy at the same time (a fact that's true, I might add, of perhaps a majority of applications on the market today), and though the start-up wizard did help me get my basic info entered properly, it still felt like it didn't take me far enough.

There are some odd quirks (slash bugs?), too. Why, for example, did something listed as a deposit in my bank register manage to morph into an expense category in the program's budget tool? How did Quicken surmise that I'll be $90K in debt by the end of the year? (I mean, yes, my rent is high, but not that high.) Why didn't it figure out that all "Usps" entries in my credit card registers should be standardized to "USPS," with an expense category of "Postage," after I told it multiple times?

I can write these frustrations off as part of a learning curve, and some of them, I imagine, will disappear in time. But what of QuickBooks, which I've been using for a year now with my business? Although I have Simple Start--which, as the name suggests, is as basic as you can go in the QB universe--I still find myself perplexed by some of its behaviors. Why, for example, does it list every invoice I've ever created as unpaid, despite the fact that I meticulously follow the program's prescribed formula for tying incoming payments to outstanding invoices? And why doesn't it recognize that credit card bill payments in my bank register are not new expenses in and of themselves?

When I mentioned to Otis yesterday that I'd installed Quicken, he replied that he'd tried to start using the program dozens of times and have given up in frustration again and again. Surely he can't be alone.

Nor can Intuit. How many creators of software (not to mention Web sites) track not just how many users they acquire, but how many of those people are actually able to use their programs for their intended purposes? Usability, user-centric design, and creating better user experiences may be the buzz, but how often are these practices truly and effectively put to use? Why are there still so many programs that are so full of small frustrations? (And why, dammit, does IE have such a problem with new windows stealing focus? It drives me to drink.)

I can't say I'm exactly aching to get back into the world of UX, but this morning, after wrangling with Quicken to download some credit card info, I found myself starting to design the personal finance program I'd actually want to use. And I began to wonder how many people I could lure away from Quicken (or Peachtree, or Microsoft Money)--how many people would breathe a sigh of relief at a program that focused on doing fewer things and doing them better (and more easily) rather than on doing a whole raft of things many people aren't interested in.

There are, I'm sure, millions out there who are drawn to bells and whistles, whether because they actually use them or because they merely think they should, or like the idea that they're there in the first place. But there also have to be millions more who want simpler programs that do basic tasks with a modicum of fuss. Who's designing for those people (yours truly among them)?