Every now and then, a human touch comes through in a software product that is otherwise devoid of any human touch. And it’s always a little bit of a surprise because we don’t think of software in the same terms as we do things that claim to be “handicraft” or “hand-made.” Software seems somehow divorced from the people and the culture that produces it.
But I’ve felt for a long time that software is an expression of culture because, after all, the people who create it do so in the context of their cultural boundaries. A software engineer doesn’t stop being what he or she is when writing software. People don’t abandon their taste for haggis or durian when they code. So, far from being mechanistic, I believe that software fundamentally reflects cultural stereotypes. That means that software products often express these stereotypes in subtle but clearly identifiable ways.
Germans excel at “straight jacket” products; workflow comes to mind. French software companies excel at “vision” (cf. Dassault Systèmes). American companies’ products reflect the American emphasis on creativity and directness.
Today, I wanted to wrap text around an object in a PowerPoint 2013 presentation. Searching in the product’s help, I came across the surprising mea culpa nearby (click on the image to read the text).
I’ll bet this documentation writer was an American, someone who wasn’t afraid of admitting an inadequacy and, in classically optimistic-American mode, a way of working around it. In our way of thinking, it’s no skin off anyone’s back to admit the product doesn’t do something the other Office 2013 products do with ease.
I was surprised — and pleased — to see the culture poking through in PowerPoint 2013.