Is software too soft?

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.

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21 thoughts on “Is software too soft?

  1. Jon – In your example with the browser you described a situation where something broke or wasn’t working correctly.

    You analogy to cars is a little off. Yes, cars are pretty easy to use (and I don’t have a self parking car, yet), but when something breaks, similar to the browser, it can be extremely difficult to diagnose and fix.

    I also agree that we have come to rely on shortcuts, favorites, customization, etc. and when it disappears there is a panic state…

    I hope all of the readers know that favorites are import/exportable. Don’t ever re-favorite all of your sites. Just my tip of the day!

  2. Jon, Jon, Jon – I can’t believe I missed this in my first comment…

    Let me get this right – Your mom uses SAFARI (Apple) and not IE (Microsoft)??? She doesn’t support her son’s company? [chuckle]

  3. I’ve dealt with this issue with my Dad for years. He wants everything customized to suit him exactly, and only then does he want to lock it down so that nothing ever changes. Different people are lazy to different degrees, though, and where on person might want something in a certain fixed X or Y-position, someone else might want it between two things, where ever those things are. Designing for either situation would inhibit the customization they want first, so you can’t give it to them both ways.

  4. While I don’t believe we’re going to get to an in the cloud OS anytime soon (otherwise what’s the use of all this computing power packed into my desktop?), lots could be done to save settings etc. as an “image”, which could then be re-applied, both to roam (sign in to your cloud stored settings on any computer), and to reset. Lots of room here also to build “solutions”, pre set themes and settings specific to a topic or a situation. Lock down settings for a specific scenario, but be able to change scenarios, and of course be able to get under the hood if desired.

    Don’t think I agree at all on the mobile reference. People use mobile because it’s mobile. If anything, there’s lots of stuff I would love to be able to change about how my phone is set up :P.

  5. “when something breaks, similar to the browser, it can be extremely difficult to diagnose and fix.”

    Of course. But the controls don’t wander around inside the cockpit.

    “Your mom uses SAFARI (Apple) and not IE (Microsoft)???”

    True. I wasn’t a Microsoft employee when my folks acquired their Mac, and in fact wasn’t even involved in the decision. It is my belief, though, that the kinds of issues they struggle with are fundamental to all current implementations of desktop OSs and browsers.

  6. “lots could be done to save settings etc. as an “image”, which could then be re-applied, both to roam (sign in to your cloud stored settings on any computer), and to reset.”

    Yes. Cloud-based storage of configuration is a huge opportunity mostly still untapped.

    “If anything, there’s lots of stuff I would love to be able to change about how my phone is set up”

    Undoubtedly. But you’re probably not the sort of person who would benefit most from the constraints.

  7. There’s actually a lot to be said for “not customizing” your layouts and aliases because you don’t become a stranger in a strange land the moment you use someone else’s computer settings.

  8. “the controls don’t wander around inside the cockpit.”

    Quick, Jon! Where’s the emergency flasher button located in your car? What about your previous car? What about the last rental car you drove? Are the windshield wipers on the left or right stalk? How about the headlights? When’s the last time you sprayed washer fluid on your windshield when you intended to turn on your brights?

    They may not wander around in any one car, but they sure do wander around from car to car.

  9. Arbitrary and malleable layouts are even more challenging for visually impaired people. Whether working within accessible themes or using a screen reader, a GUI app or web page usually has myriad items that must be parsed, interpreted, and then ignored or used correctly. But most items are irrelevant to the task at hand so much effort goes into jumping over links,buttons, etc. Navigation bars are a good example, easily seen and interpreted as “just there” until you need them, but typically in the way for a person working on using their sight or an alternative.

    The fundamental problem is that the app’s use cases are often tangled together onto a GUI for the app’s data and events. It’s as if designers implemented the use cases as traces through the GUI then proudly threw away the overlaid traces, called in the tech writer, and left the eventual users to figure out the use cases by intuition and experience, maybe even RTFM upon occasion, but the GUI remains part puzzle. For example, gmail weaves the archive use case through labels, selection links, checked list items, and a combo box selection. In “computational thinking” terms, we have muddled levels of user actions, confusing the search use case with the search box, and interleaving the infrequent archive use case with more frequently used actionsx. If only our app would “tell” us where our use cases were mapped onto the curne GUI…

    An advantage of mobile devices are that the use cases are prioritized and streamlined, e.g. so you can buy the book you know you want at Amazon without recommendations, special offers, and more links you don’t need at the moment.

    This is the theory of a screen reader newbie who is shocked and sometimes bewildered the complexity of most user interfaces and web services. And everybody should remember they will likely have vision loss if they live long enough. It’s easy to experience this world for a day, turning on high contrast black theme and running with Narrator in Windows.

    Jon, what is your opinion on the Microsoft WORD to DAISY book alliance?

    Susan “As Your World Changes”

  10. jon, you hit the nail on the usability head. apple computer used to have an Easy Finder way back in mac os 9. they need to have that kind of option for those of us helping elderly parents. and the Easy Finder would also lock down apps so that they wouldn’t be able to be customized in confusing ways.

    and pluueeeze – pluuueeeze — make the Easy Finder lock the dock so that mom or dad don’t accidentally remove an application from the dock.

    even something as wonderful as gMail needs to have a Simplified option that people new to computers can use without getting confused by the interface. you wouldn’t believe how many gMail users at the public library i work at ask me for help finding the Reply button for emails.

    phil shapiro

  11. Jon, Microsoft has a classic example in the “personalised menus” in Office 2003. They confuse the majority of people who remember functions by their position and my first task with a new install or when helping someone with Office is to turn them off. It is a similar issue as to why Office 2007 is such a diificult change for most people.

    On the car analogy I think the issue of moving functions (such as windscreen wipers) proves the point. As an Australian I had the same issue when driving in the US. I found myself continually looking out the left hand window as it is where you look at the rear view mirror in a right hand drive car.

    I assume that these are all related to “muscle memory” where an action is embedded at a subconscious level.

  12. “Jon, what is your opinion on the Microsoft WORD to DAISY book alliance?”

    Thanks for pointing that out, I had not heard of it. Nice!

  13. Metamorphic => metaphoric … a nice consonance in there somewhere.

    The “nasty” comment to your mom’s difficulty is something like, “The V)iew menu is obviously the right place to look.” Like a site I dealt with today I described as “reticent” … and almost immediately got a blog comment saying “How ”reticent”? The docs are all right there, in the wiki” Yaa.right.ok.fine.whatevuh is all I can say to that!

    But to your point, John … and here’s a phrase I heard a lot more mid-80s than I have since: cognitive ergonomics … the foundations of user-centered design. (I like to say that I am for “somewhere between total boredom and helmet-fire.”)

  14. Software is definitely different. It has unique capabilities and “softness” (flexibility). It does not have to be a curse. It’s really up to us to make the best of this opportunity, finding a way to make software well suited to its human users.
    I see the Office Ribbon and the new Office Help as an illustration of managed and more usable complexity. We still have ways to go ;-)

  15. Having been a software developer for many, many years and now helping people with IT problems (among other things) I still find that I can be thrown by the random layout changes that people have on their computers.
    It affects them too.

    One of the most confusing for many people is the ability accidentally to move toolbars to positions where they can’t be seen. They then have no idea how to get the toolbars back.

    Then there is the opposite case you want to move a toolbar and the others skitter around like cockroaches so you can’t get it to do what you want.

    Most of the people I meet are pretty clueless where computers are concerned even if they are otherwise very bright. Many seem to have a series of recipies of how to do things with almost no understanding of what is actually happening and no way to broaden their understanding. All those nice metaphors that we design into our software are pretty useless for them. Because they just don’t get it.


  16. All configurable desktop software should have a Panic Button (or menu entry) that cannot be hidden, configured away, etc. In a browser, it would revert to the default skin, disable (but not uninstall) all non-distribution plugins and add-ons, and restore all toolbars and menus to the original distribution configuration. It would not, of course, delete bookmarks, history, saved passwords, cookies, etc.

  17. Jon:

    I will grant that the steering wheel is usually where you expect it, and I don’t mean to argue an analogy at too great a length, but I will note that the user interface is “broken” in cars as often as it is in software.

    Get into an unfamiliar automobile and quick, find these: windshield wipers, windshield washer, headlight switch, hazard light switch, interior light switch, rear window defroster, and seat adjustment controls. How do you open the wing covering the gas cap? How do you open the trunk? How do you set the dashboard clock to the correct time? Zero out the trip odometer? Which button on the remote unlocks the car? Where, in some extreme cases, is the flipping hole for the ignition key (pet Saab peeve, here)?

    And don’t get me started on trying to a new preset on the radio.

    (Having caught my breath, I see Richard Schwartz has already said much the same. I’ll submit this anyway, since I know you like the concept of multiple people sharing the same emotion.)

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