The Anti-Buzz: User-friendliness

by Andrew Emmott on August 10, 2010

in Anti-Buzz,General,Software

The Buzz: “User-friendly” means the machine or system will do everything for you, taking dictation if necessary, and prepare your taxes at the end of the year.

The Anti-Buzz: “User-friendly” means that the machine or system does not get in your way, and that common functions are intuitive to find.

Why: Unless you think your job and industry are trivial, don’t expect your software to be either. It needs to be able to do a lot of things … and it certainly can’t read your mind.

This week is all about common technophobia. As blog readers, you are inherently more likely to be computer savvy, but stick with me. Computer engineers like to joke, “there is always a car metaphor,” and sure enough automobile drivers all know how to operate their vehicles, but some drivers are safer than others, some know how to change their own oil, others never learn where the cruise control is, and very few of them know enough to repair the car on their own. So to, go computer users.

“User-friendly” is an industry buzz term, and not a bad one. It came about in recognition that the success of the personal computer would be greater if it were more accessible to the average person. Computing technology predates World War II; it was only during my lifetime that somebody stood up and said, “Maybe we should make one that doesn’t require a PhD in electrical engineering to use?” Thus user-friendly denotes a certain design paradigm.

However, as I have said before, computers are not magic, and least of all they are not mind readers. Users need to understand and embrace this if they are ever to reconcile the fact that allegedly user-friendly software still demands a lot of know-how on their part. If you dream of the day when you can just speak your desires aloud in plain English and have them performed with a minimum of fuss, then what you want is a secretary, not a computer, and those will always be more expensive.

I have said before that security is a matter of personal responsibility, and so to is learning your suite of office software. The “Computer Revolution” is really a revolution of personal freedom in a very democratized, libertarian sense – by this I mean, your freedom and power in the information age are most directly linked to the amount of work you put into your own skills, knowledge, and business.

Of course I don’t mean to chastise anybody, I’m just suggesting that the robot-slave-singularity that some of us might have been hoping for is probably never coming and we might want to roll up our sleeves.

So how does one put down the misleading mantle of “user-friendly” and learn to set aside their techno-fear?

I’ll begin with a joke my father likes to tell, which in turn has become a joke I like to tell:

A chemical engineer, a mechanical engineer and a software engineer, old buddies from college, decide to take a road trip. Things are going well until the car sputters to a stop. The chemical engineer asks if they are out of gas, when the last oil change was, and what the coolant levels are. The mechanical engineer insists that he heard a rattle, and maybe a rock got in the transmission or, worse, the engine.

The software engineer says, “I don’t know what you a guys are worried about. Let’s just get out, get back in, restart it and everything should be fine.”

If you understand the joke, then you understand the first rule of overcoming technophobia: you can always re-boot:

1) Do not be afraid of failure, and just try again.

We’ve all been there. Sometimes that application just stops running. Sometimes that file won’t open. Sometimes restarting the application solves the problem. Sometimes restarting the computer solves the problem. I suppose it is hard to assert that computers are not magic when nonsense like this occurs, but try to understand the gravity of the situation: A computer is a machine that does billions of things per second. Every hour that your machine is turned on, it has done trillions of different things without failing once. Even if your computer failed once per day, you’re talking about something like a 0.000000000001% failure rate. Computers are not perfect, but they are really, really close and still they manage to annoy us. Best to take it in stride.

Sometimes buggy failures are more regular. We’ve all seen that error window:

Error Number 39
Unexpected value at 0x5E14
Cannot continue

And it just keeps coming up every time you do that one thing, right? If it makes you feel any better, I don’t know what this means either. I can take a few stabs. Programmer’s number their errors, so “39” means something to the guy that wrote the code 12 years ago. 0x5E14 is a memory address – a physical location in your RAM. In other words, these sort of error messages mean nothing of value to anybody on the planet except for the dork who wrote the buggy software in the first place.

But if it happens all the time, here is the second rule of overcoming technophobia:

2) Copy the entire error message and paste it into Google.

A million monkeys on a million typewriters will eventually write the perfect novel, and somebody somewhere has encountered – and solved – your problem before.

Really this is the natural extension of the first rule. Failures happen, don’t be paralyzed by them, do what you can to fix them, move on. Many jokes are made about how your 12-year old is better with the computer than you are – this is because your 12-year old did it wrong 100 times first and wasn’t ashamed of it. They also probably picked up a lot by watching someone else do something. It has been suggested that this is a generational thing, but it probably suffices to say here that adults are less willing to put up with repeated failure and also less practiced at the art of learning new things through simple observation.

If I may be so hokey, try to approach computing with child-like curiosity. Revel in the thought that there is so much to learn, and then live the self-made adventure that is learning it.

And so we come to my last point, coming full circle to that great buzzword: User-friendly. As a developer, making something user-friendly means making the program intuitive to use. The greatest tool to that end is following the same standards that other programs follow, both spoken and unspoken. Ideally, if you learn one application really well, you are well equipped to use another. As most of you know, Ctrl+C copies and Ctrl+V pastes, and this is the same across most programs you have used. Most of the time Alt+W will close the current window. The first two menus in nearly every application are “File” and “Edit” and the last is typically “Help” and the sort of things you find in those menus tends to be the same. Thus, our last rule for the day:

3) Learn the basic conventions and keyboard shortcuts of the applications you use most because that knowledge is transferable.

My father advocates a program like Microsoft Word to learn on. Its basic functions are easy to grasp, but it is actually a very powerful program. Learn all the basic shortcuts, and even venture deep into the menus and observe how may features exist that you didn’t even know about. This a good attitude to adopt because a lot of people yearn for features they already have and are just too unadventurous to find. Learn to find them. (Of course, also as my father advocates, training is an excellent way to learn your complex office management suite).

Remember, all those menus and options are there for you, not the tech support guy.

by: at .

Share

Comments on this entry are closed.

Previous post:

Next post: