Computers: Too Easy to Use

It’s conventional wisdom that computers need to be “easier to use.” But do they? More reliable, yes. Easier to troubleshoot, yes. But now that so many people use computers so much, I think there’s something to be said for making them less easy-to-use and less intuitive.

Whether complaining about a widely used operating system like Microsoft Windows or criticizing an up-and-comer like Linux, people have claimed for ages that computers need to be easier to use. As a blanket statement, this is certainly true. However, what does this simple statement actually mean in real-world application? When people complain about ease of use, they often rehash some stupid scenario involving an abject computer novice. Certainly, this type of person, the same one who’d be likely to use the CD-ROM tray for a coffee cup holder or put White-out on the screen, does exist in this world, and the ease of use problems in today’s computers certainly flummox them, but will the computing world truly be served by catering to their needs at the expense of everyday computer users?

You can certainly categorize today’s computer users into several broad categories, ranging from incompetent and lost to absolute mastery. But however you slice it, there is a significant portion of the user population that has a high degree of familiarity with their machines and installed software. For these people, unless there’s some sort of malfunction (unfortunately, all too common) they’re fully at ease with everyday computing. For these people, their computers shouldn’t be easier to use. In fact, many of the features designed to make their computers more accessible to a neophyte are actually holding them back from higher productivity and sometimes being quite annoying in the process.

If you believe that power users want simplicity, look at the average TV remote control. In the early days, remote controls had just a few buttons. The earliest only changed channels. As people have become more acquainted with their TVs and attached VCRs, DVDs, and home theater systems, they’ve demanded more power and convenience. Today’s remotes have as many as 60 buttons. Some now have reconfigurable LCD panels. Sure, some of these remotes are poorly designed, and the worst of them are truly mind boggling. But Joe Sixpack, a proficient TV user, can usually become so acquainted with his complicated TV remote that he can operate even the most complex series of tasks simply by touch. Would Mr. Sixpack want to see an industry-wide resurgence of the two button TV remote control and go back to getting out of his chair to change surround sound settings? No. But modern remotes are too complicated for people who have never used a TV before! We must cater to them! Doesn’t the argument sound stupid in that context?

The real problem is not that today’s computers are too hard for novice computer users, but that they all have inherent problems that make them burdensome for even the most experienced users. Just because a power user might be able to eventually narrow down a persistent stability problem to defective RAM (with few clues) does not mean that power users want to have to spend three days playing Sherlock Holmes just to get their computer working properly. Just because I am capable of making regular backups to removable media or to an off-site server, and am capable of doing a recovery in the case of a catastrophic data loss does not mean that I want to, or think I should have to.

People know that operating a computer requires some skill. In fact, they expect it. Modern operating systems are intuitive enough that once a novice gets the hang of making the mouse work, they can usually get started on the basics within the hour.

However, that accessibility comes at a price. The reliance on mouse-driven self-explanatory menus has probably robbed the economy of millions of dollars worth of productive activity, because the average user now has little incentive to learn time-saving and convenient keyboard shortcuts. In this case, I think you can make the case that computers have become too easy to use. If they were a little harder, we’d be more efficient. My recommendation is that the mouse-based menus should still be there, and still tell you that ctrl-S will save your document, but should not allow you to save with the mouse. Maybe they should force the user to learn to use ctrl-S to save. In the long run, everyone would be happier. The employer saves money, the employee saves more frequently, and has less carpal tunnel syndrome.

On Mac OS X, I use a UI hack called Quicksilver. It allows me to open applications, go to URLs, and even initiate a blank email to a contact, with a few keystrokes. It’s a revelation. It took me a couple of days to re-train myself to use it by default, and it’s been an incredible convenience ever since. It’s just a small application that starts up at boot, and it’s initiated when I type a specific key combo. A little menu pops up, and when I start to type the name of the application I want to launch, the menu displays my ever-narrowing choices. When I type “SA,” Quicksilver knows that I mean Safari, the OSX web browser. When I type “OSN,” it brings up a small menu of OSNews-related web bookmarks, which I can select with the arrow keys. I think that this is the direction that user interfaces should move in. It’s totally non-intuitive at the start (because you have to know that keyboard combo launches it. But once you know that, it’s both intuitive and efficient.

The standard Mac OS X interface with its screen-hogging dock, is a perfect example of an OS being too easy to use for a power user. That’s why most experienced Mac users I know have to customize their experience with Quicksilver, Tinkertool, and other hacks. I guess it’s an okay work-around, but I’d like to see OS developers taking a little more interest in their best customers’ needs.

Another area where operating system user interface design could use a little more innovation is in the area of information accessibility and organization. We now typically have tens if not hundreds of gigabytes of data on our hard drives. A typical family computer now plays the role of TV, video game console, photo album, family file cabinet, record collection, calendar, and document archive. Look at the desktop of a typical novice computer user and it’s littered with a hodgepodge of vitally important personal documents, interesting but trivial files and photos, and absolutely worthless detritus accidentally downloaded from the internet. Power users tend to have years, even decades of accumulated documents that need to be archived, not to mention gigabytes of photos, mp3s, and videos. All the OS makers have made some steps toward aiding the user in organizing and archiving all of this data, with tidbits of true inspiration contained in each approach. However, we’re far from a truly workable solution.

Obviously, the folders, subfolders and files metaphor works pretty well. It corresponds with the “analog” method of organizing, so it’s an easy concept to grasp. Mix in some tools to navigate the structure and full-text search and you have a workable solution for some types of documents. However, once you’re working with music files, photos, video, and other pieces of data, you suddenly need new interfaces to navigate the data, and you might want to organize them in new ways. For example, with an MP3, you may have the same song in an album, in a best-of compilation, and in a movie soundtrack with other artists. Do you want to keep three versions of the same song, or would you like to cross-reference them back to one original source. When you have a song that’s a duet with two well-known artists, do you categorize it under a separate artist listing? With photos, how can you easily and quickly categorize them so you don’t have to scan through a thousand thumbnails to find that one photo of you and your kids at the park that one day? These are truly confounding problems, and some individual applications have made great strides in tackling them. For example, iTunes and WinAMP have both developed good tools to categorize and catalog mp3s, but they’re not perfect, and their methods often exist outside the realm of the OS’ handling of the file, since they count on the id3 tag that’s embedded in the file. These apps’ capability to reconcile the id3 tag information with the location and naming of the file can often result in an unintended organizational disaster (that’s usually not un-doable) if used carelessly.

I recommend that OS vendors take into account the huge organizational need that have arisen from the massive adoption of digital music and photography and make it a priority to provide tools that aid in the organization of those materials and try to make sure that the specialized application vendors have access to the programming interfaces to these tools so their solutions can be synchronized. Apple and Microsoft have both developed their own music and photo management software. As good or bad as they are, they’re currently a level of abstraction away from the management of the actual media files themselves. That’s neither intuitive nor convenient for anyone. In the long run, the more file navigation becomes turned on to the unique attributes of the particular types of files, the better things will be.

Ever since multitasking came on the scene, computer users have struggled with how to deal with switching between multiple process and working documents. The Macintosh Finder, Windows taskbar, Unix virtual workspaces, and recently Apple’s Exposé have gradually made that task a bit easier, but it’s still a vital issue. Novices struggle with the basic concepts at first, but power users tend to suffer the most, as they tend to have more things going on at once. Mouse-based interfaces can lead to a lot of hunting and clicking when you’ve got a zillion windows open. There just hasn’t been much innovation on this front in many years.

Now that I’ve tried to make the case for computers being less intuitive, let’s talk about how they desperately need to be easier to use. The personal computer is by far the most unreliable piece of equipment in the modern household or workplace. Other machines, such as automobiles, may be more complicated and difficult to service, but we have become accustomed to a certain danger of catastrophic failure from our computers that we do not face from any other machine. Sure, the circular saw may cut your hand off, but you can pretty much guarantee that it was your own damn fault and you’ll understand exactly what went wrong as soon as you get the blood flow stopped. Only the family lawnmower can usually come close to the finickiness of the average family computer.

The problem is the nature of the personal computer. It was designed from the beginning to be an anarchic hodgepodge of bits and pieces of software, hardware gizmos, and device drivers from scores of manufacturers. And unlike other complicated machines, they aren’t delivered to us fully-functional, tested and static, like an automobile; they’re delivered to us stripped-down and barely-useable. Once we get them loaded with all our software and peripherals, each one is different, and not all of the add-ons are reliable. But this isn’t a new problem, and today’s operating systems are a lot better at dealing with this anarchy than they used to be. But it’s still far from ideal. And many of the steps that OS vendors have taken lately aren’t really fixing the problem, but merely hiding it.

It’s a great, bold step forward that now both Windows XP and Mac OS X take steps to hide the jumble of files, libraries, and registries that make the OS tick. Truly, for most users, even the most advanced, what’s in there is of absolutely no consequence. As long as everything is working, the system files should just as well be invisible and inaccessible, just as the average driver need not know where the brake master cylinder is located. However, computers tend to have problems, and unlike a car, users will routinely install software that inserts its own files willy-nilly among system resources. That’s like having your dashboard hula-dancer require a connection into your car’s cooling system to wiggle properly. A bare, out of the box installation of your OS will usually run flawlessly. Any hardware issues that are likely to cause problems will usually manifest themselves pretty quickly. The problem is, our computers are constantly being changed around, both their hardware and software.

This is another case where by making the computer friendlier for newbies, we’re actually missing out on a case where an experienced user might be missing out on important information. If, when installing anything, the process of these zillions of little files were made more explicit, two things would happen: first, it would open the door to more awareness of where problematic files are located, which would help in troubleshooting. Second, it would create a groundswell of revolt against lazy and irresponsible software and hardware vendors who, for example, demand root access to your machine when they really don’t need it, or replace libraries with older versions, or any of the nasty things that crap software can do to your computer.

What we get instead is a layer of annoying pop-up messages warning us about all of the security threats we’re making ourselves vulnerable to. They’re like the boy who cried wolf. Novice users don’t understand anyway, and all users end up on reflexively clicking OK so often that the warnings become meaningless.

The problem, in so many of these cases, is that the personal computer needs to be all things to all people. No matter who you are, your computer is pre-loaded with all sorts of capabilities and utilities that are useless to you. They add complexity, but don’t serve you in any way. They have also been slowly evolving over decades, and every major OS retains a lot of legacy cruft that may or may not be necessary for your software to work. OS makers have done an admirable job of taking these aging battleships and bring them into the 21st century, but I think that a lot of the efforts at increasing ease-of-use have been misplaced. We don’t need Clippy, we don’t need Microsoft Bob, we don’t need the retarded OS X dock or more wizards. We need a focus on easily-learnable, non-intuitive user interface features and tools to deal with the mass amounts of stuff we store on a modern computer.

44 Comments

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