The other night I was remotely assisting my mom, because she couldn’t find the search box in her Safari browser. Turns out that she’d somehow removed it, along with the address box, from the browser’s chrome. Not being a regular Safari user it took me a minute to track down where to fix this: View -> Customize Address Bar. But on reflection I can see why she was utterly baffled by the disappearance of this basic landmark.
We talk a lot about how people can figure out how to use cars, and about how they’ll be able to figure out how to use computers too — if only we can make computers as “easy to use” as cars.
But nobody ever gets into a car and asks: “Hey, where’d the steering wheel go?”
Software is essentially metamorphic, and none of us — if we’re honest — can deal very well with that. This isn’t simply a question of newbies versus adepts. In a lecture on the personalization of search — part of the UC Berkeley course Search Engines: Technology, Society, and Business — Microsoft researcher Jaime Teevan talks about how something like 40% of the finding that people do is actually re-finding. Most people don’t bookmark or otherwise save found items because they expect to be able to find them again. But they also expect to re-find an item at the same position in the search results list, and they’re significantly disrupted if it has moved.
If you observe yourself interacting with a computer, you’ll see lots of examples of this kind of thing. The composition and sequence of buttons or bookmarklets in a toolbar is completely arbitrary, but once you’ve created a layout you start to depend on it in ways that you don’t even realize until you switch to another environment that lacks that customization. Navigational paths through applications, or file systems, are trails that could have been blazed in a number of ways but, once blazed in a particular way, compel you to follow them. And when those trails are disrupted, so are you.
Sometimes I wonder if computer interfaces simply have too many degrees of freedom for most people to ever really be comfortable with. And if handhelds will become ascendant not only because the devices are mobile, but also because the interfaces aren’t so aggressively metamorphic.