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Along the same lines, consider another dubious, but common, online practice: forcing Web shoppers to type credit-card numbers without spaces or dashes. An overwhelming number of sites demand that visitors key in a continuous string of 16 digits or more. No spaces or dashes please! This is so commonplace that hardly anyone notices its tremendous inconvenience.

Take a look at the front of one of your credit cards, and you’ll see that the account number is printed in four groups of digits with spaces in between. Those spaces are there for a reason: they make the digits easier to read and reduce the chance that you’ll get the numbers wrong when you type, speak or otherwise transcribe them. Yet how many times have you tried to use that card at a retail Web site and been forced to cram all the digits together into one box on the purchasing form? And how many times have you had to fill in the box-or even the whole form-a second time because you screwed up the credit-card number on the first go-round?
It’s another one of those small details that annoy me as a consumer. This one infuriates me as a programmer, too, but for a different reason: I know that in most computer languages it takes precisely one line of code to remove the spaces from a field of data provided by a user.

Digital River, of Eden Prairie, MN, builds, hosts and manages the Web sites of more than 8,000 clients, including Novell and ScanSoft. The company bills itself as a global commerce service provider. So I called up Digital River and asked why its credit-card processing system doesn’t usually let people type credit-card numbers the way that the numbers appear on the embossed plastic.

“Because that’s the way we wrote it!” said Marty Boos, Digital River’s vice president of information systems. “It’s never been an issue for us. We haven’t gotten complaints on it.”

One reason that Digital River may not get complaints, I explained to Boos, is that the company puts a little note on its Web pages that says “Do NOT use spaces or dashes” when entering credit-card numbers. So clearly the fact that Digital River’s computers don’t take spaces or dashes has been an issue for the company. Except that instead of reprogramming its computers, Digital River decided to reprogram all of the human beings who use its e-commerce sites.

Boos didn’t see the irony. Instead, he agreed with my assessment. “When given instructions, 99 percent of the customers can [follow them],” he said proudly.

I find this attitude distasteful. Well-written software doesn’t require that people bend their behavior to the fancy of the machine; it responds productively to the quirks and foibles of its human users. One nice feature of Microsoft Word, for instance, is that if you type a word with a common misspelling, the program will automatically correct it. Fixing typos, letting people type spaces in credit-card numbers and even letting people type the letters “O” and “l” for the numbers “0” and “1” isn’t rocket science.

Unfortunately, most of the universities turning out the next generation of computer programmers aren’t spending much time teaching students the art of writing humane, usable software. Undergraduate computer science departments have instead crowded their curricula with the harder aspects of the subject, like data structures and compiler design. I searched for the word “usability” on the Web sites of the computer science departments at Stanford University, MIT and the University of Pennsylvania and came up with nothing. Searches at Harvard University, the University of California, Berkeley, and the University of Washington were slightly more fruitful: each turned up a single homework assignment for a single advanced course that mentioned usability issues.

To be fair, Web searches like this can be misleading. Daniel Jackson, who teaches MIT’s undergraduate software-engineering course, says that he tries to introduce the topic of usability from time to time. But it’s hard. That’s because, Jackson says, before a programmer can create a usable computer system-whether it is a desktop application or an e-commerce Web site-he or she must have a clear conceptual mastery of the task at hand. For many programmers, that is no fun at all-and as a result it frequently gets omitted. “It’s much harder to analyze a problem deeply than it is to hack a bunch of code,” says Jackson. “Too many software developers don’t care about the user enough to care about what problem they are trying to solve. They get too tied up in the joys of their own solutions.”

Going back to electronic shopping carts, it’s fun to think of clever ways of “garbage collecting” abandoned carts and freeing up space inside CDNow’s database server.  It’s no fun at all to calculate how much space is being wasted on Amazon’s servers and how often the company needs to buy new disks and faster database servers to keep up with all of the dead-or dormant-data. Likewise, it’s no fun thinking of all the ways that somebody can mistype a credit-card number and trying to make an e-commerce system tolerant of user error.

It would be nice if the financial markets would reward the companies with the best interfaces, but there are so many other factors determining a company’s success or failure that usability invariably plays second fiddle to issues like marketing and financial acumen.

But me, I’m rooting for Amazon-and hoping the best interface wins.

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