Unicode/XML Tanach Updated

Christopher V. Kimball lets us know that this excellent tool has been updated once again.

The new link for the text and search facility are as follows:

http://www.tanach.us/Tanach.xml

and

http://www.tanach.us/Supplements/Search.xml

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Musings on Software Intuitiveness

You will probably have noticed that most brochures or promotional literature published by Bible software
companies talk about their programs being intuitive. They may be quite different in other respects, but they all happen to agree on this one thing. Intuitive is, no doubt, one of the buzzwords in the software industry.

According to the dictionary, something is said to be intuitive when it is “known or perceived through intuition” (one synonym being instinctive). But the term intuitive, as it is commonly used in the software field, does not refer to some kind of universal knowledge, tendency, or process shared by all of
humanity, but rather to the use of certain cues that take advantage of the users’ existing knowledge and training. To put it another way, intuitive software is that software that takes advantage of cultural knowledge as its basic operating mechanism.

Therefore, when we talk, for instance, about a user interface being intuitive, we need to remember that everything we do in life is hard until we learn how to do it. This explains why someone labels something
as easy and intuitive, while another one considers the very same thing difficult, awkward, or counter-intuitive (or everything at the same time!). Come to think of it, we should probably demystify the term intuitiveness. Intuitive is certainly not an absolute. It has a lot to do with the subjective perception of users and their personal background.

Our starting point should probably be the fact that there is no standard or normal way of doing things. There are different, equally acceptable ways in which individuals perform the same tasks. Ideally, Bible software should offer a high enough degree of customization, so that most people could feel comfortable using it. However, at the end of the day, the best software is always considered to be that which does what the user wants or needs.

The heart of the problem is that each programmer/developer has to choose one metaphor when designing the user interface of his or her product (Desktop metaphor, Library metaphor, Book metaphor, Concordance metaphor…), and that a program model does not always coincide with the user model (i.e., the expectations and preunderstandings the user has). This can be true even in those cases when it is fairly well known who is going to use the product and for what purpose, though it is less likely to happen.

Surveys highlight the fact that different people have different expectations about what Bible software will do for them. Actually, even the term “Bible software” has grown to mean different things to different individuals. So, clearly it is impossible to be all things to all people. Nevertheless, despite all the differences, they can all be intuitive in their own kind of way. I have tried to make clear that intuitiveness is somewhat relative. But it does follow certain rules. A piece of software is intuitive when it behaves consistently and anticipates what we want to do next. If we can apply some common sense (not the common sense of programmers!) and get the job done even without reading the documentation in any detail, we most likely have an intuitive user interface in front of us. That, in my opinion, is what all developers should try to achieve, no matter what their target users may be, or where their program’s strengths may lie.

A good teacher can explain even the most involved arguments or cryptic formulas and make them understandable to the average person. Likewise, a good piece of Bible software should fairly soon become second nature to most users, no matter how much power it’s got under the hood. If it does, it’s intuitive. It’s as simple as that.

In conclusion, next time you see something advertised as intuitive, remember that this term, in and of itself it, can be quite meaningless. Try to look beyond all the hype and find out if the kind of common sense followed by whoever wrote the program follows closely your own common sense. Ask yourself if you would do what you are trying to accomplish the way the software lets you do it. Be flexible, and expect to have to make some adjustments and learn a few new things, but don’t forget that the program is supposed to work for you, not the other way round.

General links (not related specifically to Bible software), which I have found very interesting:

A Summary of Principles for User-Interface Design

User Interface Design For Programmers

UPDATE (February 13): Tim Bulkeley, over at SansBlogue, introduces the notion of “conventions,” in connection with the whole issue of intuitiveness. I agree that following established conventions is one of the things that make software more intuitive. But (1) conventions have to be learned (i.e., you find them intuitive once you’ve learned the “code,” not before), (2) unlike web development, software development has quite different sets of conventions (each platform – PC, Mac, Linux, PDA, etc. -, has their own set), and (3) even within one given set of conventions, there is some room for creativity, otherwise all Bible programs would look and feel the same. So, I think I’ll stand by my admittedly rather general and slightly provocative comment that “Our starting point should probably be the fact that there is no standard or normal way of doing things. There are different, equally acceptable ways in which individuals perform the same tasks.” Anyway, thank you, Tim, for your thoughtful contribution to this discussion.

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Preliminary Comments on Survey

I am not an expert on statistics and analysis, despite the fact that this past summer I had to translate a
highly technical statistical paper. Anyway, some of the current results of the industry-wide Survey on Bible Software are so clear and telling, that simply by looking at the figures and percentages you get a very good idea about the prevailing situation.

After all these years I’ve always had the feeling that Bible software was not used very extensively by women. Sure enough, out of a total of 2,146 respondents (at the time of writing), 1,927 were men (that’s 89.8%), and only 223 women. But contrary to my expectations, 50.4% of the respondents were aged 46 or older. In fact, the most represented age range is 46-55, with 30%.

The typical Bible software user that emerges from these provisional results is a middle-aged male, pastor of a church (or Bible study leader) with a College or Master’s degree, who has formally studied Greek and/or Hebrew, and likes books. This prototype user runs Windows XP on a desktop computer, though probably owns a laptop, and has a Cable modem or DSL Internet connection. Now, does that sound like you?

To be continued…

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BSR Turns One!

I just realized that this site and weblog were launched on February 7, 2004. If you follow this link, you will find the first blog entry.

Looking back, I can only be thankful for your support. With your help, Bible Software Review will continue to improve and serve a growing number of Bible software users around the world. So a big THANK YOU to all our readers.

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It’s Been Quiet Lately

I haven’t been able to blog on a more regular basis in the last few weeks. I’m in the middle of one of those
seasons when blogging hasn’t been easy. As far as I can tell, it happens to other fellow bibliobloggers too every now and again. So, not to worry!

Contrary to popular opinion, blogging is a LOT of work. Also, the way I see it, I’m not willing to blog unless I have something to say. Truth is, much though I like writing, sometimes I don’t have anything to say at all. But the main reason is basically lack of time. I am so overwhelmed by a growing to-do list that things are getting out of hand. It may sound as a poor excuse, but I can’t think of anything else more original to say :-)

It did cross my mind to quit, but that was only a moment of weakness. It is true that maintaining this website/blog is costing me money, and a lot more time than I can spare. However, I believe it has its place and needs to continue.

In the past I also thought about getting more people involved in reviewing, writing, etc., but the fact is that everybody I can think of seems to be too busy. Also, if I weren’t a perfectionist, I could write more popular, shallow reviews, and post them sooner, but I cannot get myself to do that. Software developers deserve to have their products reviewed in depth, and that, my friends, takes time (among other things).

BSR is a non-profit endeavor, and I would starve to death if I were to dedicate more hours to it that what I am already doing. I am very pleased to see that many companies want to have their software reviewed here. I am doing my best to do so within a reasonable time frame, but I have reached a point where I can’t keep up with everything. It is very frustrating, both for developers and for myself, to see that by the time a review is ready, the program has been upgraded and a number of remarks are no longer relevant. It’s happened before that I have needed a new review copy because I haven’t managed to write a review of the earlier version. Most people understand that; others don’t. Well, too bad!

What can I do then in view of this situation? I’m afraid I have no magical wand. If you want to see your product reviewed, please be patient. If you want to read a review and it doesn’t get posted, please bear with me (or check out other sites). If you can help in any way, please get in touch. If you have any brilliant idea (okay, simply an idea will do), email me. If you have a good job offer for me… (oops! ;-))

I will try to catch up on the reviews I have already started with (at least four of them), and turn to many other CDs and things sitting in the “waiting room.” By the very nature of software there’s always bound to be a queue. Mix that with a perfectionist (that’s me!), and there you have an explosive cocktail.

If you are still here, thanks for reading this piece. At least now you know a little bit more about what’s going on behind the scenes of this blog and the website. Have a nice day!

UPDATE (February 8, 2005): I enjoyed reading Mark Goodacre‘s sensible and balanced comments on this matter. Thank you, Mark.

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