Too Busy For Words - the PaulWay Blog

Thu 6th Sep, 2007

The Soft Interface

This is adapted from a conversation between myself and a person I know in the USA on software, interfaces and Linux. Since I'd been having this argument with Hugh recently, I found the confluence of the two arguments enough to blog about.

In his last two paragraphs, he starts by observing "...I see no problem with striving to make the computer something that a person could use with the same amount of acumen they bring to using an oven or driving a car." He observes that this is a universal desire in the software industry, and finishes by saying that we shouldn't "have to understand the handshake protocols that underlie their cellular phone's tech to make a call." He then observes that he would be happy to use any other OS, "but [...] I'm not prepared to restock my shelves with new software that I don't know how to use or that promises functionality it cannot deliver."

I think it interesting that you talk in one paragraph about making it easy to use computers, and in another about not knowing how to use new software. What I think you demonstrate here is that fundamental problem: there is no such thing as the 'intuitive' interface. There are plenty of people who can't operate anything more than the basic functions of their oven, car, mobile phone or TV set; likewise, there is little or no standardisation of functionality in the interfaces of most of those things. The car may have the most standardised basic interface of all the devices we use regularly, but beyond steering and making it go and stop the interface possibilities are endless. How do you start it? How do you wash the windscreen? Turn off the radio? The lads at Top Gear often demonstrate these badly-designed interfaces brilliantly - one of my favourites was when they got their mothers to review some small cars, and one of the events was to open the windows, set the airconditioning on, and tune the radio to channel 4: all things that you'd want to do but often turned out to be maddeningly difficult for these ordinary people to master.

The real truth of it is that there is no standard interface - nor is one a good idea, for there's no standard human being or human brain. The only real constant thing is change, and because of this we have to teach people to adapt and change. Here, I argue that design standards such as Apple's HUI guidelines actually do as much harm as good - as soon as you take a Mac user away from their beloved interface and plonk them in front of the most popular operating system on the market today (Windows XP) they're suddenly out of their depth. My dad encountered a web page that had a link that he needed to use in grey text, and since on his Mac grey text in a menu environment has always indicated an option that was not available, he never thought of trying to click on it. This is not adaptability: this is an in-bred, forced monoculture that removes the person's ability to change and learn.

The problem is closer than you think. You can't buy a copy of Flash 5 any more, and in the upgrading and changing Macromedia and Adobe have removed functions that people use; the Chapman brothers who produce use Flash 5 simply because it does some things better than the current incarnations of Flash. So Adobe has removed functionality that worked for people. Pick up a copy of Photoshop CS and it doesn't do things in the same way that Photoshop 3 used to. You'd think that Microsoft would have kept Word the same, but no - they've changed the way things are pasted in Word 2007 that make it substantially different to the previous versions; and that's something that people use almost every single day! So complaining about "software that [you] don't know how to use" is hardly a reason to stick with your proprietary software. Realistically, you're better to learn what you can do with the various software packages available, and try to adapt and change.

Sure, some standardisation is necessary. Just don't fool yourself into thinking that what you're used to is the One True Way.

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