Dan raises some interesting points in his criticism of an article in the Sunday Times’ Doors section this weekend, which essentially described the problems women find in their interactions with computers.

I think the really interesting point he touched on is the specifivity of applications: how much it is that applications are built to do, and how much they really need to do.

The novice user often makes the misconception that “because I do not need to do this, no-one needs to do this”. This, coupled with the misconception that “because Word is standard and popular it must be good and thus I must use it”, and the misconception of most commercial software manufacturers that “one size fits all” and you’ve got a big, big mess.

Applications are tools. They are there to be used by the user. There is no obligation for the user to make use of all the facilities offered – after all, I am not going to take up fishing purely to make use of the fish-gutter on my Swiss Army Knife. The real lessons that users need to be taught is that the key to successful use of a software package (by which I mean: the user can acheive everything they wish to, first time, off their own bat, without wasting time) is learning what you need.

I’ve often helped my Mum with things she’s needed to do on the computer; I’ve taught a family friend a great deal about her computer and how to acheive her goals; and I know that my mother has also passed on advice to her friends. None of us have gone down the route of working our way through every menu in Word. Successful education is simply done by asking a user what they need to do, and showing them that. Some people I know specifically needed to be able to make tables of contents; something most of the Doors readers would think an unnecessary complexity hidden in the menus.

So, different people have different needs. Dan points out that in Word 2000 and onwards, the menus become adaptive to your needs (once you figure out where half of the options have disappeared to). If software is to become more catch-all. At the same time, my copy of Word should be roughly similar to yours – or else I’d be unable to use it when I visited – so you can only make something so adaptive.

The alternative is to have more applications and have them do less. Something between Word and Textedit/Wordpad would suit most people. To be honest, Textedit/Notepad would be fine for most users needs – I mean, for letter writing, you can probably type the date manually; you don’t really need auto-insert. This is a route Apple has pursued with success – iLife works because none of the apps do too much; this is great for streamlining of interface and simplicity, but also means that suddenly, when iPhoto isn’t enough, you’ll need to go out and buy Photoshop. At the same time, this is why novice users (such as one woman in the Doors article) take to iPhoto etc. more than they take to something designed for functionality and power, rather than simplicity and friendliness. Photoshop works for me because it lets me work with a minimal amount of hassle – and believe me, I don’t use nearly all its features. But one or two of them, some quite high-power, make my life so much easier. And I don’t need brushed metal to get in my way. That said, it’s notable – especially in the Mac world – that shareware and freeware authors are more and more progressing down the small-but-simple route, and that can only be a good thing for end users.

Computers are complex beasts, and user interfaces help us to tame them. At the same time, much of the software built to run on them attempts to harness that power as best possible – and when the same software for professionals is being marketed and sold to the home market, it’s no wonder people find it unfriendly. Perhaps this is why Apple’s current approach to software and operating design is looking in the right direction. In the end, though (reading the article again), I think that people need to realise (and realise soon) that if you want the benefits of such advanced technology, it’s going to be complex. It needn’t be, but you shouldn’t criticise your latest-and-greatest gadget for being complex. The one woman I definitely sympathise with in the article is the one whose phone was upgraded unnecessarily – her old one worked fine and, most importantly, she worked it fine. That’s the relationship you should aim for with your technology.

Even if it means forgoing rotating and adding drop shadows to your virtual Post-Its.

1 comment on this entry.

  • methyl | 17 Jul 2003

    hey, looks good in here – sorry it took me so long. there here internet business has only just got north of Kingussie.