interface cruft versus my mom

I read this article, When good interfaces go crufty, and it all sounded pretty right to me, but really just a rather longwinded way of saying:

  • We ought to get rid of the Save and Quit commands;
  • It's stupid that file requestor dialogs and the desktop/finder are two totally different ways of doing the exact same thing;
  • Microsoft really, really sucks, and so do Gnome and KDE.

All true, but not exactly earth-shattering revelations, so I didn't bother passing it along, but it's been picking at my brain for the rest of the day, mostly because I recently got my mom a new computer.

She had been using a truly ancient Mac for a long time, and nothing worked any more. She wasn't able to get any version of Netscape newer than 2.0 installed on it, and she wasn't able to enable her ISP's spam-blocking feature, because it used an SSL page, and her copy of Netscape's root cert had long since expired. Faced with the prospects of either trying to explain this to her, or update the cert myself, I just bought her a new iMac with OSX.

She's aghast at the idea that this perfectly good computer is totally obsolete, only six years later. As well she should be. But, oh well, it is.

Anyway, the point of this story is, in the intervening six years, the file save dialog has changed who-knows-how-many times, and she keeps ending up trying to save things and losing them, because it seems to like to default to putting things in "Documents" instead of back in whatever directory they came from. Or something like that.

So today she proudly told me that she'd gotten it all figured out. She said, "now I just always save everything to `Desktop' and then I can see where it is: once I save it, I drag it to the right folder!"

Now, that's just... so wrong. But hey, she made it work. Go mom.

It struck me that this was a perfect example of the result of the kind of cruft that Matthew Thomas was talking about, above: there's an interface she's familiar with, and that's pretty discoverable: icons on the desktop, and dragging things around. And there's this second interface for doing exactly the same thing that works totally differently, and is highly non-discoverable. So she found that it was easier to just always use the familar interface.

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9 Responses:

  1. king_mob says:

    When working support, you hear really weird ways that people interact with their computers; a lot of "Oh, yeah, it'll work that way, but why did you ever..."

    I wish I had a nickel for every time I've heard somebody try to justify some obscure MS Word feature on the grounds that "Oh, yeah, have you ever seen these power-user secretaries? They're amazing, they can do anything with that..." Meanwhile, you talk to the actual secretary and she's pretty befuddled on how to get her documents saved. My current favorite boondoggle along these lines is mail merge. I've had to talk so many sixtysomethings through that...

    Garden-variety users lose documents all the time. The hierarchical file structure that was supposed to help them all out with this does not help, because most casual users have also heard at some point that they should never, ever screw with any file on their hard drive; they might break something! So if it's not a part of their directory structure that another application exposes to them, it doesn't exist to them. And if their office application decides to save their documents in another directory -- even a subdirectory of their usual documents directory -- they're done for. It might as well be throwing all that stuff away.

    Incidentally, your mom's Mac is not just obsolete now, it was junk when it shipped.

  2. naturalborn says:

    There's a very simple and good suggestion hidden in there - the file selector dialog should use the same tree widget for displaying files as the explorer does. That would make it altogether more understandable.

    I'm not holding my breath though, the depth of lack of understanding of basic user interface design concepts is truly astounding.

  3. malokai says:

    I hate OSX. It looks REALLY pretty, but there's something that is just off about the interface.

    And the widgets are too fucking big. The latest macs seem to nothing but fashion accessories. Mind you, apple seems to have made a market out of this, so all the power to them.

    • jorm says:

      The simple fact that the three main window manipulation buttons (close, minimize, maximize) are *color coded* is a horror. What does what? I can't tell without mousing over them.

      Also loving the "resize the window only from this one corner."

  4. chanson says:

    The Apple Lisa didn't have file open or save dialogs.

    Instead, to create a new document you double-clicked a "stationary pad" in the Finder. This tore off an "untitled document" in the same folder, with its name highlighted so you could type a new one. Then you could drag it wherever you wanted it, and double-click it to open & edit it.

    Apple tried to bring this to the Mac as part of System 7 but almost nobody used it, probably because few to no applications shipped with stationary and there wasn't a standard place (like the desktop) for stationary to go. It's gone in Mac OS X as far as I know.

  5. andrewducker says:

    If you take away my 'save' option, then you damn well better not save over the existing file until I say so.

    I frequently open a file, make changes, save it under a different name.

    Maybe if you could have the multiple versions all in the same file - so you could step back to any revision. I'd be happy with that.

    • railmeat says:

      Yeah, every application should save its data in its' own CVS server. Or maybe a system CVS. But it should save every thing, with out asking you.

  6. rpkrajewski says:

    The root cert thing bothers me. The pace of browser evolution had slowed down, so it's less likely that people will get new certs as a result of downloading new browsers, especially since they software is so damned big and more people still have dialup only.