Coding Horror

programming and human factors

The Cost of Complexity

There's an interesting eleven page article in the Economist considering the cost of software complexity:

The economic costs of IT complexity are hard to quantify but probably exorbitant. The Standish Group, a research outfit that tracks corporate IT purchases, has found that 66% of all IT projects either fail outright or take much longer to install than expected because of their complexity. Among very big IT projects -- those costing over $10m apiece -- 98% fall short.

Gartner, another research firm, uses other proxies for complexity. An average firm's computer networks are down for an unplanned 175 hours a year, calculates Gartner, causing an average loss of over $7m. On top of that, employees waste an average of one week a year struggling with their recalcitrant PCs. And itinerant employees, such as salesmen, incur an extra $4,400 a year in IT costs, says the firm.

It's a great article; be sure to read through all the sections.

I think everyone agrees that usability is a desirable goal, but what they don't acknowledge is that usability is expensive. Both in terms of development time and absolute budget dollars. And worse, it is a soft cost: it's hard to quantify how much money your company will save if users spend 10 minutes less per day flummoxed by the software they're using. So usability tends to get short shrift.

It's technically more "efficient"-- in terms of budget dollars-- to build a quick and dirty solution that's hard to use. All you're really doing, though, is hiding the true cost of your software behind hours of user pain, and perpetuating the vicious IT cycle that causes users to avoid computers in the first place. We have to do better.

Written by Jeff Atwood

Indoor enthusiast. Co-founder of Stack Overflow and Discourse. Disclaimer: I have no idea what I'm talking about. Find me here: