posted by Kostis Kapelonis on Mon 29th Nov 2004 18:55 UTC
IconThe IT sector today is a complete mess. The end-users rarely understand this, but most insiders reach a point when they realize that things should be different. The problems are numerous but they all reduce to a basic principle. IT and consumer electronics companies are interested more about money than helping people solve their problems. Of course companies need to make a profit and nobody denies that. They should however make money by helping people and not by creating more problems for them.

Driving a car versus using a computer

Forget everything about IT for a moment. Go back to your driving lessons. During your first steps, driving a car was full of small details. Turning the wheel, hitting the brakes, using the clutch and so on. After a while however, as experience was accumulated all these things became minor. An experienced driver thinks in a much higher level. "I use the car for transport". A driver enters a car thinking that he/she wants to get from point A (e.g. home) to point B (e.g. work). Using the car is an intermediate stage which serves this higher goal. Using the car is a temporary low level task which fulfills the high level need of transportation.

Now come back to computers. Think the user. If you are reading this you may be more experienced than the user I am talking about. Think your grandmother or aunt who uses a computer for basic things (email/surfing/word processing). This is type of user I mean. A user as described above always boots a computer for a high level task. "I will prepare my presentation for tomorrow". "I will search the Internet for information on the Roman Empire". "I will write a mail to my cousin". No user boots a computer in order to partition a hard disk, or download new security updates. Unfortunately every user soon realizes that things are not so simple and in order to reach these high level goals there are many boring details that need to be examined first.

Thus the user is forced to learn basic things like screen resolutions, folders and files, formatting floppies, installing programs, Menus, double clicking and a bunch of other details that (guess what) nobody cares about! Even simple actions like opening a document in an application are more complex than they seem. One has to remember the exact location of the file (its position in the file system) in order to retrieve it. Search functions and "recently opened" lists solve partially this, but the problem never disappears. Imagine a user who inserts a DVD full of digital images in the drive and wants to show a specific image to his/her friends. The search function will be slow (4.5GBs hold many images), the "recently opened" list doesn't apply (since the DVD has never been inserted before).So the user will spend several minutes to find manually the requested image. If the user is smart enough the descriptions will be hard coded in the names (John-and-Mary-beach.jpg) or the folders will have some meaning (d:\holiday\beach\whatever.jpg). In most cases however, the images will have cryptic names like DSC06458.JPG and the directories will show just the model of the camera. The user ends up manually searching all the images previewing them in one of the zillions programs that exist for this kind of boring operation.

Users think in high levels

The situation I just described is totally unacceptable. Users don't have to be tortured like this. It is true that graphical user environments (GUIs) have improved computer usability but this is certainly not the end of the story. Additionally all these flames between Linux zealots and windows fanatics are completely useless. I hope that after reading this article you will agree with me that all operating systems are inefficient. And that includes the Apple stuff too. Just think of all the amount of information a naive user must digest before finishing any work. I don't mean the usual suspects (defragging? drivers? divx codecs?) but more basic things. The whole concept of different programs and windows that need to be resized and moved (isn't this the job of the window manager?). The whole interface is a mess. The WIMP interface has been criticized long before this article and will also be in the future. Ask the users themselves. Most of the times they will surprise you. The classic one is "why do I need a thing called Nero to write a CD and can't just drag and drop the files on the CD as I do with the floppy?". Yes I know that windows XP does this but still the process takes two steps (1.drop files 2.write CD). This is something completely strange for the naive user. (Other solutions which involve different CD-Writing technologies are unknown to the common public.)

If you write down all complaints from casual users most of them follow two principles. 1) Users work with a high level goal in mind. Every task which is not directly related to this goal is a distraction which needs to go out of the way as soon as possible. 2) Users expect the computers to be intelligent and take decisions in the background for them. They get very frustrated when they realize (as they become experienced) that computers are stupid machines that need to be told what to do.

I haven't said anything really new at this point. Most readers who know anything about human-computer interaction or have programmed guis know all this. The usual answer for the situation is that computers are complex machines, blah blah, they are not a VCR blah, blah, or a washing machine blah, blah. Basically that since computers have multiple roles, their interface cannot be too simple and so on and so on. Well I disagree.

Table of contents
  1. "High level computing, Page 1/2"
  2. "High level computing, Page 2/2"
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