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Is There Such a Thing as "Too User Friendly"? 680

Posted by Cliff
from the that-depends-on-the-user dept.
rtphokie asks: "The story about the TiVo get-together along with some recent trials and tribulations rolling out a knowledge base along with the time I've spent recently helping my 80 year old grandfather with this VCR and TV has gotten me thinking about user interfaces and the elusive "user-friendly" label. When someone who thinks of themselves as 'non computer savvy' works with a gadget like TiVo and compains that it's 'too complicated', how should we react? Why are users immediately forgiven for not even taking the least amount of effort to look for a solution to their confusion in the manual. The tendency has always been to blame the interface and ultimately the engineers who designed it but isn't there a point where users have got to share some of the blame? Why do today's software and consumer electronics users expect to be able to fire up their new toy and magically have a complete understanding of how to use it?"
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Is There Such a Thing as "Too User Friendly"?

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  • Learning curve (Score:2, Insightful)

    by SpatchMonkey (300000)
    The objective is to get a learning curve that isn't too steep, while still allowing complicated tasks to be done.

    This usually takes the form of a division into 'simple' and 'advanced' modes of operation. This is probably too niave an approach though.
    • by Anonymous Brave Guy (457657) on Friday July 05, 2002 @07:38PM (#3830381)
      This usually takes the form of a division into 'simple' and 'advanced' modes of operation. This is probably too niave an approach though.

      On the contrary; I think it's a powerful and much under-rated approach. The biggest hurdle for most people learning a new tool is (arguably) coming to understand the fundamental way it works. After that, the rest is often just details.

      For example, if I'm using a new word processor, maybe I learn that its formatting is broken down according to characters, paragraphs, etc. and where to find the dialog for each. Then it's not a big jump to work out how to make something italic (a simple task) or to set up the kerning (a more advanced one). In this case, it would be useful to have a simple UI with common options (open and save files, change the font, run the spelling checker, etc) and a full UI with the whole lot (revision marks, change the number of columns, configure the grammar checker, perform a mail merge).

      Personally, I used to like systems that worked that way. You could start simple and learn the big picture, and once you'd got the hang of it, switch everything on and see all the details. Then you knew everything was there and you could see where you stood. These days, everything seems to come with seventeen different ways to do the simple things and an options dialog with 100 different settings, most of which show or hide some feature if the menus aren't already adjusting under your feet before you start anyway (but luckily there are seven different ways to get help). Is this really easier to learn and more user-friendly, or just making a simple tool like a word processor seem far more complicated than it is? (There's an obvious commercial/upgrade angle here, but it's not really relevant to the issue at hand, so I'll gloss over it.)

      • You have some very good points there, but just to pick up on the simple/advanced thing - the niavety is in there being only two different states.

        It's like splitting the learning curve up into two steps, when lots of smaller steps would perhaps be easier.

        Basically what I'm saying is that when the gap between 'simple' and 'advanced' is too wide, you need something else to bridge it.
        • It's like splitting the learning curve up into two steps, when lots of smaller steps would perhaps be easier.

          Basically what I'm saying is that when the gap between 'simple' and 'advanced' is too wide, you need something else to bridge it.

          I certainly agree with that. I'm simply suggesting that the gap isn't too wide far more often than people give credit for these days, and that having too many steps is as counterproductive as having none at all.

      • The world is divided into two categories. Those who "get it" and those who do not. Those who "get it" understand that everything has a pattern and all they have to do is play with the gadget and read the manual/documentation and understanding will come. Those who do not get it are akin to those who call us over to set the time on their VCR without even checking to see if they could do it themselves. Those who ask us 200 times how to copy/paste and cannot remember simply because their mindset is that computers are scary complex things that do not make sense.

        These people are not going to be helped by simplification. These people are not going to be helped by hand-holding.

        There needs to be some sort of "mind building" curriculum for people who are afraid of electronics. I believe that people who are told a 3-step process (such as copy-paste) 200 times and STILL cannot remember are mentally defective and in need of rehabilitive therapy.

        Think about it. If someone is told even 10 times that "If you push the doorbell a bell will ring" and cannot remember it, you'll assume they are brain damaged and treat them as such.

        That's how I've come to treat my mother when she asks me how to copy and paste. Finally I took her to the local drugstore and made her copy a piece of paper. I brought her home and had her paste it onto another piece of paper. I then had her describe the steps she had to take to me by writing them down. If she skipped something like "Put the money into the machine" or "select number of copies" then I'd get confused and make her go back to the beginning. Afterwards I brought her over to the computer and said "There are no settings. There is nothing to remember. You drag the mouse to highlight the text you want to copy. You press the right mouse button and choose "copy". You move to the new document and right-click and choose "paste" HOW is that more complex than what you just did with the copier over at the drugstore? HOW is that more complex than tying your shoes?"

        She agreed, and then 10 minutes later called me over because she couldn't figure out how to copy/paste. She didn't even try.

        -Sara
        • by FFFish (7567) on Friday July 05, 2002 @09:06PM (#3830690) Homepage
          Your post really should be moderated up.

          Further to your post is that people form paradigms, and these paradigms allow them to "short-cut" their thinking.

          A common example is found in our cars: because they have been standardized, we expect certain things to remain constant: gas on the right, brake to the left of the gas, clutch (if there is one) to the far left. Because this archetype is so well-established, we can hop into any car (in America) and drive.

          But not everyone can pop the hood and make sense of what's under there. Their world knowledge, while it does cover the driver's controls, doesn't include engine mechanics. The rest of us, who know a sparkplug from an oil filter, can pop the hood on almost any car and begin to make sense of it... and not because the engines are all laid out the same, but because the *ideas* are the same.

          Recently, my understanding of car engines was used in measuring the valve clearance on my motorcycle. I'd never do such a job on my car -- too complex -- but just knowing how my car engine works, I was able to do the motorcycle job. Heck, now I've done the motorcycle, maybe I should do the car!

          Anyway, to bring this back to computers, the paradigms for computer use aren't any more obvious than those for car engines: one only learns them by getting one's hands dirty.

          If you gain skill with one wordprocessor, you can probably use most any wordprocessor without needing help. But to learn that first wordprocessor could be a hurdle: it's not much like anything in our physical world!

          And just as most people these days don't bother to get their hands dirty with their car engines, and hence couldn't begin to conceive of changing their oil, let alone reboring a cylinder, many people don't care to get their hands dirty learning the power-user aspects of Word, programming their VCR, or even using the full capabilities of their microwave.

          And who can blame them? These are all just tools: tools for transportation, for communication, for entertainment, for cooking. Learning the minimum needed in order to get by makes very good sense: it frees your time up for doing actual, important things. Like having a life.

        • The world is divided into two categories. Those who "get it" and those who do not. Those who "get it" understand that everything has a pattern and all they have to do is play with the gadget and read the manual/documentation and understanding will come. Those who do not get it are akin to those who call us over to set the time on their VCR without even checking to see if they could do it themselves. Those who ask us 200 times how to copy/paste and cannot remember simply because their mindset is that computers are scary complex things that do not make sense.
          These people are not going to be helped by simplification. These people are not going to be helped by hand-holding.

          These people are gonna be helped by Darwin!

          They'll starve to death when there are no more bank tellers and they can't pay for their food because they can't figure out how to withdraw money!

          They'll freeze when the gas company cuts off their power for not paying their bill online!

          They'll run their cars into bridge columns because they're distracted trying to figure out how to turn off a rental car's air conditioning!

          They won't be able to find a mate because they'll never leave the house for fear of missing a TV show that they can't videotape because the VCR is so horribly complicated!

    • Logically Sound (Score:5, Insightful)

      by yintercept (517362) on Friday July 05, 2002 @08:38PM (#3830607) Homepage Journal
      I wish people would talk about "logically sound" rather than this completely nebulous concept of "user friendly."

      Look at Windows. A great deal of the garbage we hate in Bill's operating system was stuffed down our throats under the guise of being "user friendly." For example, changing the name directory to "folders" because directory has unfriendly latin roots. The actual result of this great "user friendly" move was Microsoft now stuffs the end user's data in a bunch of folders that you cannot find...making back ups harder. The goal of an OS should be to concentrate on creating a logically sound, secure foundation on which you can build other applications. But we compromise the foundation for an undefinable user friendliness.

      It is so funny. I see it time and again. People love the "user friendliness" of MS word when they log on the first time. A few years later they are pulling out hairs as they find their systems clogged with gigabytes of files, odd templates, virii and other mysterious things that happen with word documents as systems age.

      That really crappy registry thing we have to deal with came out with a great deal of hype about a "user friendly" registry replacing unfriendly ini files. Instead of coming up with a logically sound and versatile and extensible mechanism for recording intialization parameters...we have this supposedly user friendly monster that bites our tails when things go wrong. The only way we can deal with problems in the registry is to hope that some programmer somewhere was good enough that their 5 year old win 98 program will fix the registry problem with XP when you reinstall.

      The parent of this thread was "Learning Curve." The result of the user friendly movement has been to add a bunch of garbage to programs to get the public to a feel good level, but the garbage ends up blocking them from complete mastery, since you know have a garbage user friendly layer in the way.

      Instead of "user friendly", if you aimed at the goal of logically sound...you would find yourself with products that have only a slightly higher initial learning curve, but that people can master and build on. Take the threads about driving. The configuration of the driver seat has a nice logically sound foundation. It is driven by the logic of the vehicle and it works better.

      When you really have a sound logical foundation, the actual workings of the product is all but driven from that foundation. A phone is totally un understandable until you know the logical premise that you have to hold it to your ear, and that different phones have numbers that you must dial before calling.

      Imagine a car designed by the "user friendly" gurus of MS. A six year old could get it out of the driveway, but it would take a certified MCD (Microsoft Certified Driver) to get it back in.
  • I've heard (Score:5, Funny)

    by acceleriter (231439) on Friday July 05, 2002 @07:08PM (#3830209)
    that after Taco gets a few shots into him, he becomes way too user-friendly, if you know what I mean.
  • RTFM (Score:3, Insightful)

    by SirSlud (67381) on Friday July 05, 2002 @07:09PM (#3830217) Homepage
    There is a reason this acronym exists. I stand by it. ;)

    Seriously tho, the answer is yes. Yes, the more complex something is, and thats where everything is going (wait till we can tinker on the nuclear generator powering our house from some closet), we need to learn more and more to be saavy with the stuff.
    • Re:RTFM (Score:4, Funny)

      by digitalsushi (137809) <slashdot@digitalsushi.com> on Friday July 05, 2002 @07:26PM (#3830320) Journal
      I dunno.. I mean we have watches and clocks that set themselves via a radio signal broadcasted out of a mountain. To record a TV show you want, you move a pointed until the name is yellow and hit the red button- you dont have to know the times, or stations. Cars have computers in them, but they tell you when they need to be fixed. They can tell you what street you're on. It's getting harder to get lost.

      as a technology gets more commonplace, it all gets easier. The first guy who used the Internet- eh, ok it was the Internet until he found the second smartest guy on earth and hacked his computer. From then on, it's been easier and easier to get online. Now my grandma gets online and snipes other grandmas on eBay. "I 0wned that l1mp b1zcuit, d33ry!" "Ok grandma, just dont get me flood pinged again" "Oh I wont, I'm sp00fing. 3h, wh3r3 4r3 my d3ntur35!!" Ok, maybe that last example is a little overboard. But my point is that as tech moves forward, it gets easier to use. There's examples in the other direction, but the people who can use it get smaller and smaller, and that doesnt seem like the "way that it normally is". You know, like ubergeeks that have electron microscopes and the original handicams that can see underwear.

    • On the one hand, people need to try harder. My grandmother was scared of her VCR until we got her to read the manual (a good manual for a change). After that she was able to tape her favorite shows on the thing while she was out. She's the Lithmus test for technology, if she can, anyone can.

      On the other hand, some manuals are written so poorly that even techies have a hard time understanding it. Mostly it is not bad translation but bad penmanship, and most manuals are simply too long and complicated. Isn't it sad that the manual for using a particular baby carriage is three times as long as the manual that comes with an Uzi? Manuals need to be short, mostly, and they can be. The manual that came with my washing machine was just a double sided page with installation instructions, and another page on how to use it. Simple and succinct, even if a single separate page looks a bit... well.. amateurish.

      Oh on the matter of translations: a good example is the thing that came with my VCR. Sure it is nice to receive a manual in 10 languages, but at 250 pages the thing scares most people off by its sheer volume alone. The thing just screams "don't read me!"
    • Re:RTFM (Score:2, Interesting)

      by legojenn (462946)
      Although this is a tech discussion, RTFM can be used in so many other ways. I used to supervise secretaries in my office. (I habded the job off to another person so I could do more research work, far less stressful). They were temps who came and went. They would annoy asking me the most obvious questions not once, not twice, but everytime they did the same task. These were not difficult tasks. Simple data entry on a mail logging system, collecting mail, photocopying, filling out forms, etc.

      I developed a FAQ, then it grew over 3 months to a manual covering every task they were expected to do. They never read it. It just sat on the desks.

      The moral of the story is that people will never read a manual unless they absolutely have to. Speaking of which I have a Perl in 24 hours book that I bought last summer that I need to finish....
    • wait till we can tinker on the nuclear generator powering our house from some closet

      On the subject of usability, placing the controls for various devices (like one's nuclear reactor and or fuse box) in small, cramped, hard to reach places has got to be one of the stupidest ideas of the milenium. One day my nuclear reactor is going to be on the verge of meltdown. Meanwhile, I'll be standing half in the dark closet, flashlight in hand, shoving coats and baseball bats out of the way as I try to find the (explicitive deleted) unlabelled switch that lowers the cadmium rods in the reactor.
    • by vanyel (28049)
      I disagree completely --- if you understand what an object is generally supposed to do and it's got a GUI interface, that interface has failed totally if you have to read the manual to get it to do its basic functions. The manual is there for you to get the most out it, but for example, Tivo tries to be so cutesy with its names that even when you know what it does, you have to play around and/or rtfm to figure out how to make it do it.
    • Re:RTFM (Score:3, Insightful)

      by NanoGator (522640)
      "RTFM" is a cop-out. There's little reason why something can't be intuitive. I should know this, I'm a Systems Analyst. It's my job to design interfaces.

      There are situations where a manual is necessary, nobody's questioning that. However, 'RTFM' should never be the solution when somebody uses a product in an intuitive way but it doesn't behave intuitively.

      I'll give you an example: Door handles. Ever walk into a place and push on the door, only to see a 'pull' sign there? The reason you probably pushed was because the handle was similar to another door that you pushed instead of pulled. Wouldn't you get annoyed if somebody behind you said 'read the f'in sign, tard.'?

      Is it possible to be 'too user friendly'? It's possible to be 'too' anything. On one hand, you don't want a product making too many decisions for you. On the other, the default operation of a product should be intuitive. That's why your watch shows the time, rather than having to push a button to read the time.

  • "Too user friendly" is probably only a problem for security systems. For most other systems, part of being user friendly is giving the user as much power/capability as they would use.

    The user friendliness game is really a comparitive one. How easy is it for the user to accomplish X compared to another system. As such, the forefront of user friendliness is always changing. Still, it is sad that most systems can't even outperform having a geek standing beside you who answers questions like, "how do I do this?"
    • Still, it is sad that most systems can't even outperform having a geek standing beside you who answers questions like, "how do I do this?"

      Hear hear!

      A primary example of this is backing up mail from Outlook Express to transfer to another machine. My clients cannot understand why this functionality is not provided on the File->Export menu. I have to tell them to long way of finding the Store Folder through Maintenance, bringing it up in Explorer.. copying that, then reinstating it via Store Folder again when they reinstall. What a PITA that is.
  • by gelfling (6534) on Friday July 05, 2002 @07:11PM (#3830225) Homepage Journal
    I mean people still crash for no obvious reason, right? How user friendly is a refrigerator or a power drill? How user friendly is your girlfriend?
  • You seem hostile... (Score:2, Interesting)

    by IronTek (153138)
    You seem quite a bit hotile to the everyday stupid, lazy person! Let me guess, you majored in Human-Computer Interaction?! :-)

    Seriously though, I can't say I blame you...we are too lazy to read a manual...or possibly just to prideful. At the same time, I remember a Slashdot article a few weeks ago about manuals in other countries and how users there actually read them...

    So while I understand your point, I think a truly good interface needs no manual. At the same time, I also believe that the possibility exists that such a thing isn't possible.

    People designing the interface just have to face facts that they can't please everyone...and I think we'd all be better off if people would stop buying devices they have no intention of taking the time to learn...I mean, it's great that we live in a country where you can buy anything you want...just don't bitch when you're too lazy to learn how to use it properly...
  • by WIAKywbfatw (307557) on Friday July 05, 2002 @07:11PM (#3830237) Journal
    Never. The simpler something is to use, the better.

    Don't confuse simple to use with basic - just because something is easy to operate it doesn't mean that it's incapable of doing some complicated things.

    Many examples spring to mind but the telephone is top of my list. With my phone I can call half way around the world in just a few seconds - heck, even my two year-old nephew can.
    • by Darth_Burrito (227272) on Friday July 05, 2002 @07:26PM (#3830321)
      Ba, phones are too complicated.

      First you have to sign up for a local carier, then you have to sign up for a long distance carrier. Then you get called four times a day as various phone companies try to get you to switch or sign up for extra features.

      Then you have to remember all these strange and bizarrely complicated numbers. 10-10-811-Charlie-Tango-Niner, 1-800-Collect, dialing 1 for long distance, dialing 8 to get an outside line, etc. When I think of my good friend Ben, the first thing to pop to mind isn't an arbitrary ten digit number. Using numbers for phones is no better than listing your website by ip address sans domain.

      And all that's without getting into the kinds of things people are starting to use phones for... instant messaging, checking email, listening to mp3s, things the device's interface is piss poor at dealing with.
    • Don't confuse simple to use with basic - just because something is easy to operate it doesn't mean that it's incapable of doing some complicated things.
      Don't confuse complex with complicated. From m-w.com: COMPLEX suggests the unavoidable result of a necessary combining and does not imply a fault or failure <a complex recipe>. COMPLICATED applies to what offers great difficulty in understanding, solving, or explaining <complicated legal procedures>.
      Many examples spring to mind but the telephone is top of my list. With my phone I can call half way around the world in just a few seconds - heck, even my two year-old nephew can.
      The telephone isn't all that simple and yet more basic than you give it credit for. All a telephone does from the user point of view (advanced services aside for the moment) is accept a sequence of numbers that identifies another station somewhere in the world, and attempts to build a bidirectional circuit to that station from available resources. The only reason it appears to be simple is because most people consider phone numbers as very nearly opaque. If the person supplying you with that phone number didn't give you the area code, or you're in a country other than your own and don't know how to get onto the international network, it's not so simple anymore, is it?

      But on to the point of my post. Difficulty of use of any piece of equipment is related to two design qualities. First, how many options is a user supplied with? Compare the Macintosh keyboard with the PC keyboard, a mechanical microwave timer with an electronic microwave timer, or a modern PBX station with a Bell System twelve-button POTS phone from the 1970s. A device that offers lots of possibilities right there on the front panel intimidates the inexperienced user and can disorient even the most seasoned. It is possible to offer functionality without disturbing the perception of simplicity by hiding it beneath a trapdoor, as some televisions and VCR's (and TiVo) do.

      Many Americans being functionally illiterate, the second quality governing the perceived complexity of the user experience is the amount of reading a user must do to operate the device. Products with thick manuals firmly between the user and the functionality they want are an obvious target, but a more subtle yet influential problem is that some prompts, menu items, dialog boxes, etc. are too hard to (quickly) read. Products that talk too much tend to be perceived as complicated by the uninitiated and annoying by the initiated. Menu items should ideally be no more than one short, ideally monosyllabic, easily recognized word or phrase. Good examples are "Empty Trash", "Clean up", "Quit", "Back". Bad examples are "Empty Recycle Bin" (not so easily recognized, polysyllabic), "Open Web location..." (long, unclear, not so easily recognized: compare to "Go to..."). Menus should place more frequently used options in shallower places. RPN-style "Noun->Verb->Adverb" structures are good, as usually the user knows what they want to manipulate before they know how they want to manipulate it, but consistency is more important than the particular structure.

      I am not a trained user experience professional, so take this advice with a salt shaker or two and all your wits.

      -jhp

      • "The telephone isn't all that simple and yet more basic than you give it credit for."

        No shit. My sister in law asked if we had a phone where she could make a 'private' phone call last week; I directed her to the back bedroom where we still have a rotary phone. 3 minutes later she was back asking "so how do I use this thing?"

        She's 23. I feel old.
    • by _|()|\| (159991)
      The simpler something is to use, the better. ... the telephone is top of my list

      "Things should be made as simple as possible--but no simpler." Put another way (by Larry Wall), it should be easy to do easy things and possible to do hard things.

      It's funny that you should mention the telephone. A receptionist transferred a customer to me by mistake. After fiddling with the "forward" button for a minute, I was forced to ask the customer to hang up and call again. I later discovered that my phone was an old model that lacked the "transfer" button. It required a "*" code to perform that function.

  • No, but there is a such thing as too much User Friendly [userfriendly.org]. How many hours have I wasted reading cartoons that 1% of the population would even understand, much less think amusing....
    • <AOL>ME TOO!!!</AOL>

      this line intentionally left blank to confound the lameness filter
    • Maybe only 1% of the population thinks UF is funny because it isn't. Sorry, but the characters are ugly and haven't improved with age. The timing, when it's gotten right, is entirely ripped out of some old Bloom County strip. (not to mention the art) Go read some [pentasmal.com] good [superosity.com] comics. [houndshome.com]
    • I think JeffK's explaination applies right now...

      http://www.somethingawful.com/jeffk/dr-episode1/pa ge-04.htm
      http://www.somethingawful.com/jeffk/dr-episode1/pa ge-05.htm
      http://www.somethingawful.com/jeffk/dr-episode1/pa ge-06.htm

  • The Windows way... (Score:4, Insightful)

    by doorbot.com (184378) on Friday July 05, 2002 @07:12PM (#3830240) Journal
    ...is to just "Wizard" every action the user may need to take. By trying to anticipate what the user wants, a wizard can be provided to allow the user to quickly, and easily, complete their task. Of course, then you end up with a wizard so large and complex that it becomes an OS in itself, and one needs to read the help files associated with each option to successfully progress thorough the wizard's heirarchical structure (refer to Windows XP's default settings for the control panel). You have to know what each option does before you can click it. So eventually, when wizards rule the lands, there will be a manual for the wizards! And, as a "computer guy" I can still say "RTFM!"
  • RTFM (Score:3, Insightful)

    by jawtheshark (198669) <<slashdot> <at> <jawtheshark.com>> on Friday July 05, 2002 @07:14PM (#3830261) Homepage Journal
    I'm sorry I have to say this but often reading the manual helps. Unfortunately the quality of the manuals has gone down in the years because the "interface is so userfriendly". I recall my first cellphone: a full 200page manual. I read it, I understood it and now I practically know how GSM works ;-) Okay, this is not for everyone....I recon, but consider this. Two years ago, my 5 year old cellphone was due for replacement (unable to get new batteries), and I bought a new one...with a manual of barely 20 pages. I felt as if nothing was explained.

    Honestly, if I don't figure it out by meddeling with the interface I just love to get the full-featured manual and read it and follow instructions. For me it has worked with numerous VCR's and other appliances. Unfortunately, *reading* is something even 80 year old grandfathers don't do anymore because technology is supposed to be intuitive. :-(
    Call me oldschool...I'm sorry...

    • I'll say it again: manuals need to be shorter! I see absolutely no need for a cellphone to require a manual of 200 pages. 20 pages sounds more like it.

      A common complaint I hear from non-tech folks, especially when it comes to cellphones or other relatively new technology, is that there is so much information in these manuals that they cannot find what they want, and they are confused by all the terminology. "But I don't want to know about base station controllers, attenuation, control channels or IMSI's! I just want to know how to make a damn call from my new cellphone!".
    • There's also a trend towards companies not wanting you to tinker with their stuff (that you paid them for). This goes hand-in-glove with shorter manuals and "disposable" products.

      Citizens would want to know about their long-lasting products. Consumers don't give a shit. Corporations prefer consumers.

  • It needs to fill a demand, so it should be intuitive to use in fulfilling the need.

    I need to be able to look where it should be and find the answer. If I haven't read the manual I should still be able to navigate the menus and submenus to find the function that I want.

    All good products are intuitively easy to use.
    User friendly is not having three shortcuts to do the same thing, but having one really obvious and intuitively placed shortcut. Menu structure, and Icon placement and pictures are key to easy use.

  • by evenprime (324363) on Friday July 05, 2002 @07:16PM (#3830266) Homepage Journal
    The only "intuitive" interface is the nipple. After that, it's all learned.
    Bruce Ediger, in comp.os.linux.misc, on X interfaces
    • Your point is well taken and I found it amusing. However, I would like to dispel this myth before it gets too far.

      I have 2 young kids. After seeing what my wife went through in getting a newborn to nurse for the first time I have little sympathy for engineers complaining about end users. Yea, some baby/mother combos just fall together and all is well but often it's a complex struggle. Babies aren't born knowing how to nurse. They are born with some reflexes that in a perfect world fire in sequence and produce the proper result. Sometimes it doesn't work that way.

      It starts with a rooting reflex. When the baby's cheek is touched it causes him to open his mouth and turn his head. Then there's a reflex to open further when the lower lip is brushed. Finally sucking is initiated by touching the tongue. Timing is important and failure causes frustration. Whole careers are based on helping new mothers with this. Luckily babies learn quickly and bypass the reflex approach within a few days.
  • users (Score:5, Informative)

    by Patrick13 (223909) on Friday July 05, 2002 @07:18PM (#3830279) Homepage Journal
    with all respect to your G'father, he has probably not operated enough electronic items to learn the "language" of electronic gadgets. The more he operates, the more likely he would intuitively understand how to use something.

    This idea is discussed in Donald Norman's Design of Everyday Things [amazon.com], which is a great book for UI people.

    Also, I have never seen the Tivo's UI, so it could be poorly designed... ;)
  • by Ian Peon (232360) <ian@ep p e r s o n.com> on Friday July 05, 2002 @07:22PM (#3830294)
    Credited to one of my coworkers (who designs UIs), after pressing the wrong button on a shoddy UI:

    "ARRGH, do what I'm THINKING, not what I'm telling you!!!"
  • UI is not that hard (Score:4, Interesting)

    by Safety Cap (253500) on Friday July 05, 2002 @07:22PM (#3830297) Homepage Journal
    First you must understand that under no conditions will users read the manual. Ever. Save yourself the cost and don't even bother printing one.

    Now go build your system so that someone can use it without knowing anything. Also, make it so that an advanced user can get to the functions she wants without going through some idiotic "wizard."

    UI tests with actual users? What a interesting thought!!! Maybe someone should try that, too!

    • I hear the "users don't read manuals" line frequently. It's an oft-repeated user interface design maxim, whose only fault seems to be that it's wrong.

      I used to use a word processor called Nota Bene, that's still being made (yes, it's possible to compete with Microsoft Word). I bought it in the DOS days. NB 4.5 came with a "quick start" booklet, a 900-page reference manual (!), and supplemental manuals for the bibliography manager and Orbis (basically a database query system that uses NB and text files as its databases). And a reference card, of course.

      Starting with NB 5, it became a Windows program, and the manual became a Windows help file. Take a wild guess what the main complaint about the new system was. Yep--no printed manuals.

      Nota Bene is an unusual program, but you hear this a lot if you actually listen to users of any program that has any level of complexity. A good UI means that a user can get going on basic tasks immediately, but it won't lead people to the more advanced features that require a certain level of education to use. How many Microsoft Word users know about its ability to place anchored text frames, or its inline equation commands (TeX-like, rather than using the graphic equation editor)? How many Microsoft Excel users know what a Pivot Table is? Or to put it another way, most of the non-programming computer books published these days are there to be the manuals the programs should have to start with. (One popular series is even called "The Missing Manual.")

      When you write "make it so that an advanced user can get to the functions she wants without going throgh some idiotic 'wizard,'" I certainly agree. But the advanced user has to have some kind of reference work available to become an advanced user. A good UI keeps out of the user's way--but that's not a replacement for user knowledge.

  • by FyRE666 (263011) on Friday July 05, 2002 @07:23PM (#3830299) Homepage
    I know quite a few people who can't program their VCRs, and seem proud of their ignorance. These are not (all) stupid people, but it seems that anything even slightly technical is beyond the interest of most of the population. (I'm laughing here thinking of the episode of the Osbornes where Ozzy is trying to use his state-of-the-art entertainment centre: "Why is it you need f*ckin' compuer skills to turn on the f*ckin' telly!?")

    When something as simple as setting a start and end time plus a channel is beyond a large proportion of the population, it's going to be impossible to design an interface for TIVO that *anyone* can use. At some point you have to give up...
    • by Preposterous Coward (211739) on Saturday July 06, 2002 @04:54AM (#3831944)
      I know quite a few people who can't program their VCRs, and seem proud of their ignorance.

      I think you've hit on an interesting social phenomenon. It's culturally acceptable -- perhaps even desirable in some circles -- to profess ignorance about certain things. I can't count the number of times, for instance, that I've heard people proclaim "Well, I don't really understand math", not with shame but with something approaching pride. (In case math-savant slashdot readers have a hard time relating to this particular example, try replacing it with something more personally salient like "I really don't understand women". In my experience, such a statement is often used as an incentive to bond with other people who feel similarly, not as a shameful admission.)

      Then again, there are things that it's not socially acceptable to admit lameness in. Openly admitting lack of knowledge of computers would probably be fatal in a forum like this one. Openly admitting a lack of knowledge about the mechanics of sex (once you're beyond a certain age / experience level) is probably something few people would do. (Though there is a Sex for Dummies book, so who knows -- I figure that's something you buy only as a gag gift, and you make sure that you get it gift-wrapped at the checkout counter!) Or ignorance of how to operate a motor vehicle (unless you're a lifelong Manhattanite, in which case it could be a perverse source of pride)...

      • I know quite a few people who can't program their VCRs, and seem proud of their ignorance.

        I think you've hit on an interesting social phenomenon. It's culturally acceptable -- perhaps even desirable in some circles -- to profess ignorance about certain things.

        People have beliefs about things. The belief stops them from doing the things that other people do to get good at something.

        To be good at something you usually spend a lot of time and effort on it, practicing, learning with an open mind, and having fun. It's those actions (be it trying recipies, playing an instrument, or writing code) that make you good. But if you believe "I'm no good at it", then you'll just avoid opportunities to practice, learn, and play.

        So yeah, if people believe they "don't understand VCR's" then they are actually instructing themselves that the manual is written in Greek. Think hypnosis: "I don't understand, I don't understand, I don't understand..." That's how strong beliefs are.

        Now we all have beliefs, be they positive or negative ones, so it's not about calling some people "stupid". And the beliefs are very strong, and there can be a lot of fear associated with trying to break a belief. People will do all sorts of things to avoid having their beliefs invalidated, because there's a lot of security in "knowing" how the world works (how I belive it to be).

        (Living without beliefs is very freeing, but who wants to be free anyway?)

        So yeah, the interface and the user manual can go a long way towards being clear, simple and informative, but beyond that, if the user has a blocking belief, I dunno what you can do about it.

  • by ryanvm (247662) on Friday July 05, 2002 @07:23PM (#3830302)
    From a marketing point of view you're dead wrong. If you want to survive in a competitive marketplace you can't be telling your customers to RTFM. It just doesn't work that way. Bash Microsoft and AOL all you want, but part of their success is definately due to ease of use.

    There is no such thing as "too user-friendly". If someone buys a surround sound stereo system it's because they want good sound while they watch movies. They really shouldn't be asked to learn the intracacies of stereo system design.

    In the end, it should just work. If you don't make a product that's easy to use, somebody else will.
  • by wo1verin3 (473094) on Friday July 05, 2002 @07:23PM (#3830306) Homepage
    Microsoft Bob
  • by UserChrisCanter4 (464072) on Friday July 05, 2002 @07:24PM (#3830308)
    1) Lack of basic knowledge or incentive to acquire it. I sell computers in your basic retailer setting, and consumers really are the dumbest, laziest people out there (in general, there are always exceptions). Nine times out of ten, a customer would rather complain that something is too difficult than take the extra five minutes to simply read a short section from a manual. I have people call and ask me how to connect, say, the line level plug to their speakers on the computer they just bought. Anyone who has opened a retail computer in the last two years knows that there is a big, glossy fold out "poster-size" page with a color illustreation of the three steps necessary to plug in basic cables. Square peg in square hole, blue trapezoid in blue trapezoid-al hole. Things 4-year-olds have already mastered. It also never ceases to entertain me when customers will readily spend an extra $200 to get a machine with four features they don't need just so they can have more RAM. "But," I'll say, "You can walk right over there and get an additional X MB and pop it in. Do you really want to spend another $200?".

    Problem 2: Easy-to-use is obviously subjective. I prefer a heavily hierarchical organization in everything. On windows machines, I'll typically have only 4 categories under "programs", each with sub-categories and sometimes sub-sub-categories, ie. Entertainment->Games->FPS->Q3. It makes sense to me and allows me to launch programs more quickly. It frustrates the hell out of my girlfriend, who prefers the "Giant alphabetical order list" of programs. Of course, her method is far more suitable on my iBook.

    So, to summarize: Ease of use still requires a little bit of education/effort in learning. What's easy to use for you or the interface designer may not be easy to use for Grandpa or my girlfriend or me. Allow a good degree of customization and configuring, but make those options obvious and easy to locate.

    • I sell computers in your basic retailer setting, and consumers really are the dumbest, laziest people out there (in general, there are always exceptions).
      An alternative interpretation is that they simply aren't as interested in computers as you are. They don't expect to have to read a manual to use a typewriter, and to them a computer is basically a glorified typewriter.

      Nine times out of ten, a customer would rather complain that something is too difficult than take the extra five minutes to simply read a short section from a manual.
      It's perfectly reasonable for them to expect to be able to assemble their computer without spending five minutes reading the manual. I'm serious. If you go to a car dealership to test-drive a car, do you expect to have to spend five minutes reading the manual in order to figure out where the ignition is, and how to operate the seatbelts?

      Not only that, but if it takes you five minutes to find the relevant information in the manual, read it, understand it, and do it, then it probably takes them half an hour or an hour. Yes, I'm still completely serious. I teach physics for a living, and one thing I see when I work with students one-on-one is that what seems simple to me is complicated to them. To me, it might be, "OK, just solve V=IR for I=V/R and plug in the numbers." Well for them, it's a 1000-page textbook with hundreds of equations in it. First they have to make sure that V=IR is relevant and correct for the problem. (What if it's a diode and not a resistor?) Oh yeah, and the current is given in milliamps, so they have to convert to amps. And although I know instantly that the letter "I" stands for current, they haven't internalized the notation yet.

    • I agree that people cannot be bothered taking the time to figure out how things work, however, I must say that their attitude is not only justifiable but that of a well ajusted persone. When programing two VCRs from the same munufacturer only 2 years apart requires a totaly different proceedure, why bother taking the time to learn how to use it? The knowlege is totaly unapplicable anythwhere else! I think that many things we learn in the computer industry are totaly absurd and useless. I mean if it takes 5 to 10 years to go from a newbie to linux user, that's 5 to 10 years of your life that are gone forever - you can't have back and what have you gained? The knowlege of how to interract with a niche OS that probably will work totaly differently in 5 years anyways....

      It's utterly embarasing, I find, that some people know so much, of what is ultimately trivia, about interracting with a big, complicated, proceedure and not even paid for it. It doubly spooky to think that at the same time, that linux and it's supporting structure are about the extent of these people's knowlege. Getting all snoby about how no one bothers to learn some here-today gone tomorrow technological gaget seems a bit.. miss-guided to say the least. If anything, spending 5 years or so obsessing about some gizmo and not getting paid for it is the truely disturbing thing. My personal opinion is that if the specialist (aka programmer or engineer) did not spend the time to make his program or gaget as easy and intuative to use as possibly he is wasting my time - forcing me to understand some irrelevent minuta of his domain. As a result he is an ass hole, just like the sales clerks that keeps me waiting in line for 5 minutes for nothing, just like the jerk in traffic that sits in the middle of the intersection on red. To hell with him and his program.
  • by scotpurl (28825) on Friday July 05, 2002 @07:27PM (#3830322)
    Everyone writes one interface for every skill level. There ought to be different interfaces according to your choice, or according to what level of interface the system thinks you can handle.

    That last part's a bit broad, so I'll clear things up. With a normal PC, you've got CPU cycles to spare, and the computer has time to tell if you move deliberately for a menu choice, or if you're hunting for it, or if you keep choosing something, and cancelling out of the choice.

    For a VCR, the default interface should be as simple as the buttons on the front. If you read the manual a bit, it will tell you how to turn on the intermediate features. If you read a lot, you can turn on the advanced features. If you read waaay too much, you get to turn on the command-line interface that uses reverse-Polish notation, in Aramaic, but displayed approximately by using Turkish for vowels, and Cantonese for consonants.

    Everyone's not as comfortable with it as folks like us are, and because computers can do sooo bloody much, we should stop boring them, and give the computers more to do, such as providing different interfaces for different skill levels. We use short command interfaces with our kids and our pets ("Sit! Quiet!"), and much longer command interfaces with our peers ("Dude, nice frag!"). It's a very natural thing to do, and we ought to start allowing computers to do the same.
  • > but isn't there a point where users have got to share some of the blame?

    Wouldn't that be ALL of the time? Delete their files, erase their account, and lock them in the tape safe.

    "Bastard Operator from Hell [ntk.net]" articles here... Enjoy. ;-)


  • You asked: "Why do today's software and consumer electronics users expect to be able to fire up their new toy and magically have a complete understanding of how to use it?".

    That's the wrong question: they don't expect that.

    What they expect is that they will be able to fire up their new toy" and have it be usable. That's a *lot* different then expecting to "have a complete understanding of how to use it".

    And the answer to the real question is "because they paid good money for the thing, it should do what it says it does without me having to wave a dead chicken over it".

    -- Terry
  • by oGMo (379) on Friday July 05, 2002 @07:31PM (#3830341)

    Funny, we were just talking about this as it related to another post I just made [slashdot.org]. The thing is, there is no such thing as user friendly, at least the conventional meaning of the phrase. It all boils down to two factors:

    • Ease of use
    • Ease of learning

    The phrase "user friendly" comes about by confusing the two: somehow assuming that by being easy to sit down and learn with no work, something is easier to use. Then it's "user friendly."

    Unfortunately, this isn't how it works in the real world, at least usually. A tool can be built that is easy to use---powerful, flexible, suited toward the job; or it can be easy to learn---no training required. Usually the tradeoff for the latter is that functionality is limited, so the user isn't overwhelmed. A balance of sorts must be achieved. Most of the best tools lean toward easy to use, and rightly so: you're only a newbie for a very short time. You may be using the tool for the rest of your life.

    However, these aren't necessarily mutually exclusive, either. It is possible, in theory, to build an interface that is both easy to use and easy to learn, as long as one does not equate the two, or think that one somehow implies the other. Doing this is rather tricky though. A good example of such interfaces are those for simple tools which can be applied to a wide variety of uses (a hammer, /bin/ls, etc.). Another example is that some games tend to use: the dynamic interface, which starts with a few key options, and gradually adds more.

    Thus, "user friendly" doesn't really exist in the conventional sense, which equates this sense of immediate ease of learning with continued ease of use. Rather, ease-of-learning and ease-of-use must be balanced, and attaining something truly user friendly requires a lot more than having icons and a mouse, or fewer menu entries.

  • by ThePurpleBuffalo (111594) on Friday July 05, 2002 @07:31PM (#3830343)
    First let me start out by saying that I'm an elitist in a lot of ways.

    Cars are probably the most user friendly device on the market. Just think about the potential reduction in deaths due to drunk drivers if cars were LESS user friendly.

    Now, let's go to the computer side of things. Grade school children are able to find images online and print them out because of the current state of user friendlyness. I've heard of "computer class" where this is taught and encouraged, while at the same time, children who use paper, scisors and glue instead are somewhat shunned. (I think Clifford Stoll makes reference to this in "High-Tech Heretic".)

    To a very high degree, user friendlyness removes control from the user and uses "logic" to try to make assumptions about what the user really wants. Just look at MS-Word and "auto-correct" which changes "Teh" to "The". (I had a classmate in university with the last name "Teh"... in the end I used vi.)

    Am I big on user friendlyness? No. I use console Slackware. I use vi. I drive a stick. Perhaps I like to know that I control the output, and nothing will happen except what I tell it to do.

    Is there anyone else out there that feels the same way?

    Beware TPB

    • Yes, there are those of us who feel the same way. Last night, I met a Jackass who works for Microsoft. When I mentioned that I like open-source software, he said "Well, that's a nice hobby." Bastard. So we talked about this for a while, and one of his points was that with Windows, you don't have to fuss with scripts and config files. I said, that's exactly why I like using Linux, because I have total control over it - among other things.
      I personally drive a stick. I hate cruise control. People who can only drive automatics should be shipped off to Greenland.
    • To a very high degree, user friendlyness removes control from the user and uses "logic" to try to make assumptions about what the user really wants. Just look at MS-Word and "auto-correct" which changes "Teh" to "The". (I had a classmate in university with the last name "Teh"... in the end I used vi.)

      The last version of Word I heard of that wouldn't let you add an exception for "Teh" (capitalized, even) was 6.

      I've used on an extensive basis (it's my primary job function) 97, 2000, and XP. 97 & 2k (and possibly 95) allow you to just hit the backspace, or "undo", to remove an autocorrect. XP's "smark tags" show up after *every* autocorrect, and you can, right there in that menu, tell it to never autocorrect "Teh" again.

      "User Friendly" does not mean "The user has no control." It means "The user doesn't have to wrestle with the computer," either through obscure commands that you need a manual to know, or options that you can't touch even with the manual.
  • by simetra (155655) on Friday July 05, 2002 @07:32PM (#3830348) Homepage Journal
    It's been my experience that:
    1. 90+% of users are incapable and/or unwilling to think. Regardless of how obvious the UI is, they need to be sat down and trained like monkeys to repeat a series of steps to accomplish whatever they're trying to do. They cannot, or will not, stop, look at the screen, and make an intelligent choice on how to proceed. No matter how plain and simple the UI is, it's like they had a part of their brain removed.
    2. About 5% of users can make decisions based on the UI to accomplish their goals.
    3. The remaining few percent, which we would call Power Users, have a decent understanding of how computers work, how files work, where they're located, how to find them. They know that if they're trying to open a file, they can usually do this by clicking File, and maneuvering down the menu. They can figure out that if their X: drive isn't opening, it's probably because they aren't logged in to the network. They can take a tip, and make a logical conclusion, like "Oh yeah, okay, then I can do this and this. Thanks." These users are very few and far between.
    Windows is great for the few who understand that there are common elements of (most) every application. Still though, it's that 90+% that will suck the life out of you every time.
  • I usually think of "user friendly" as meaning "most users find it easy to use." By this definition user friendliness, rather than being based strictly on a priori design criteria, is defined empirically. If most users find it easy to use, it's user friendly. If not, then not.

    This doesn't mean that designers are faced with a black hole until after they build a product. It just means that design principles should be induced from what previous experience tells you usually works with users, rather than dictated by what designers think people should be able to deal with.

  • if you're a design/interface coder trying to exculpate yourself. Why worry about making the UI better? It's the @$#% users' faults, they never read the manual!

    Video games do pretty well considering no one ever reads their manuals. Maybe you should try ripping off the UI from some popular console games or something!
  • No one else really advertises their products as being supposedly as simple as a computer. Let's take Dell for example:

    What is their tagline? Something like "easy to own, Easy to use, Easy as Dell", with some other stuff thrown in. What makes a Dell running XP any simpler than an HP running XP or a whitebox running XP? Dell's cases are certainly easy and convenient to work in, but anyone who's heavily interested in the "easy to use/own" aspect probably isn't poking around inside.

    Maybe they're referring to the buying process. Again, a lot of novice users (the ones who create the biggest tech support issues) are probably intimidated by the online/phone buying process. Hell, I run into people all the time who think that the local Best Buy or CompUSA must be the place to start looking for Dell.

    If I were my mother (computer knowledge-wise), I wouldn't know what the hell to make of Dell's site. Desktop-wise, I have three tiers of systems, each of which is configurable. What benefit does this RDRAM have over that DDR-SDRAM? Do I need a 64MB video card? Why is this 7200RPM drive better, and what is the standard speed? I heard those Celerons were "bad"... and so forth.

    Computers really need to be advertised less as electronic hubs or personal empowwerment devices and more as tools. I can't call craftsman when I'm having trouble building my deck, so why should Dell concern themselves with my solitaire playing issues. Don't scream "price" because if I'm talking about a quality set of power tools that I'd need to build a deck, I can dump just as much as I could on a mid-range home PC.

    It makes me shudder when I see computers advertised as e-mailing home vides. How many home users have enough mastery to understand that they'll need to import DV, edit it down, then compress it to a size halfway workable enough for e-mail, when in reality the file SHOULD be uploaded to a website/FTP server and a link e-mailed?

    In the industry's push to portray PCs as "must-have", heavily important "educational", "information devices" they have created a legion of consumers that seem to expect highly-trained "support specialists" to assist them when they can't get their picture to print out in the insane manner they seem to think it should. On the flipside, Craftsman has created a legion of users who have faith in the fact that this 150-year-old company can make a solid power-tool, and if you have questions about how to begin cutting the 2x4s, you should've hired a contractor. In reality, the two pieces of equipment are very, very similar, it's merely the perception that makes a customer feel one way about one and another about the other.
    • It makes me shudder when I see computers advertised as e-mailing home vides. How many home users have enough mastery to understand that they'll need to import DV, edit it down, then compress it to a size halfway workable enough for e-mail, when in reality the file SHOULD be uploaded to a website/FTP server and a link e-mailed?

      I've taught people who don't know how to install software how to publish a movie to their website and notify thier freinds using iMovie and iDisk; I mean the machine comes with a firewire cable, it opens iMovie in import mode when you plug in the camcorder, it has a preset for a web movie, and after HomePage makes the frame page for the movie it offers to send iCards to your friends.

  • The software can be divided up into accidental complexity, and complexity which is fundamental. You need to tell your VCR when to record. You don't need a 9x1 LCD display with two red buttons and three black ones labelled with arrows and 'stop/eject/enter'. That's accidental complexity.

    I'm always wary of doing things with a click of a button. How much fundamental complexity was weeded out, in order to bring such a simple system? Usually it is this sort of system that has less options instead of more. This brings out easier to learn, harder to use. The fact that there is such market demand for these design principles is disappointing. Goods do not often live up to their true potential.

  • Are cars user friendly? If user-friendly means that you can drive it off the lot without being familar with the car then the answer is no, cars are NOT user friendly. The problem is not the placement of the speedometer, the steering column, or the stereo knobs. You see, before you can drive that car off the lot, you have to know how to drive. It takes several weeks of practice to learn how to drive a car and be comfortable. It could be longer or shorter based on the car itself (manual or auto) and the talent of the person learning to drive. Once someone is familiar driving a car, they could drive just about any car they chose right off the lot.

    I feel that consumer electronics fall into the same category. To be able to use consumer electronics "out of the box", you have have some familiarity with consumer electronics. It doesn't take years of use. It takes just enough use for the customer to grasp the basic concepts. Then off they go with TVs, stereos, DVDs, and consoles. Just as soon as they RTFM!
  • How usful is the product, what effort does it take to use it.

    Those are the two questions people ask. Take a complex machine - a car. Takes a lot of effort to learn how to operate one, however it provides a large use.

    Take another complex machine, a combine harvester. Lots of learning needed to operate it, and for most people the use is minimal, so they dont learn.

    A VCR is very useful, it lets people record stuff. Its easy to use too (put tape in, press record). The timer is more effort, and less use to a lot of people. Hence people that learn how to use the timer (or even set the time) are those that live busy lifestyles, namely the under 40's. Pensioners are (typically) at home all day and use the VCR less (mainly when they want to watch 2 things at once).

    All the wonderful features of a tivo arent perceived to be of any interest to most people, so they dont take time out to learn it.
    • You've hit the nail right on the head:
      • How useful is the device?
      More issues along the same lines:
      • How many different devices do I really want to learn to use?
      • If I learn to use a particular device, will it be a skill that I can use five years from now?

      Programming a Tivo or a VCR fails all three tests for me. It's not useful (because I hardly ever watch TV), it's only one of a ridiculously large number of programmable devices I could spend time messing with, and it's guaranteed to be obsolete in 3-5 years.

      Computers are actually pretty good compared to consumer electronics, because you get feedback, and the feedback is text. With a cell phone, say, there's basically no feedback, except for maybe a beep or a flashing Egyptian hieroglyph. Computers are also good because you can recycle the same skills, e.g., using cut and paste in many different apps.

      I'm perfectly happy programming computers, but I have no intention of ever learning how to program a VCR or use a cell phone. It's a waste of precious brain cells.

      • using a cell hone in the UK is very useful (near essential), especially for the under 30's. (I no longer fit into the under 20's :( ) Simple functions are nt hard (dial number, press green). more completx ones arent either (press up/down and scroll thorugh recently made calls, press green). Hell my 85 yearold grandad can use them.

        Once you start using calanders, different caller groups, wildfire (voice recognition on commonly dialed numbers), wap, games etc. And even sms to some extent, you are into the point of diminishing returns.

        Who really uses call waiting? Not many (my girlfriend does though, I feel ashamed, i dont know how to use it)
  • You know, some things are complex and new. It's that simple. Somehow you have to tell this stupid machine that you want to record some World Cup game on some channel at some time using whatever silly buttons the manufacturer could afford. Can it be done better? Sure. Make it less complex by stripping away options (wizards, shortcuts, etc.) or make it less new by using metaphors (icons, desktops, etc).

    But until the machine is smart enough to understand you, you will have to be smart enough to understand the machine.
  • ...is not one of user friendly but rather one of user understanding
    fundamental concepts and being able to apply them in the learning feedback
    loop so to enable second nature integration of the users mindset.

    But as things are done in teh computer industry and competition and
    anti-competition, it's hard for a user to make second nature anything
    because the industry keeps changing things.

    I.E. should a user have to learn how to use a word processor that they
    would otherwise not, due to using something else, so to be able to read
    a .doc file?

    But the problem is even worse than that as the whole nature of a computers
    and programming is simply the act of automating complexity that is made up
    of simple things. A process of automation that consist of some very basic
    and small set of actions/functionality. And this level of simplicity of
    applying concepts or actions/functionality is being kept from users in
    general.

    And it even gets worse, as the DRM is going to make it difficult to learn
    how to do it the difficult way, should the user so chose to do outside or
    four years of full time colledge and certification and license buying
    etc...

    So I guess what it all amounts to is the effort to not allow the user to
    actually do things for themselves enough to actually learn something that
    would help the user to make their use of computer more second nature.

    You cannot make something user friendly and not allow user to use it. And
    apparently blaming the users for the failure of the industry to what they
    need to is the best excuse the industry can come up with. Hell they seem
    to get everything else from the users, from ides to feedback to money to .... and of course an excuse to blame.

    I suspect this will be modded down but then that is apparently to be
    expected.

    • But as things are done in teh computer industry and competition and
      anti-competition, it's hard for a user to make second nature anything
      because the industry keeps changing things.


      I agree with this completely. when TVs came out they worked just likd radios, there was a dial you turned to select a station and then you sat and were entertained. Of course TVs were just liek radios and we have so many other devices that work unlike anything else we have had before. What I am not sure about is whether this difference is a result of innovation or of simply trying to actively differentiate yourself to show how "new" the thing you have just designed is.
  • You're a luser too (Score:5, Interesting)

    by guanxi (216397) on Friday July 05, 2002 @08:07PM (#3830491)
    I'd guess that most people reading this, including me, know more about info tech than 99% of the population. It's easy for us to say that anyone who doesn't figure computers out is just not making an effort and respond with a 'RTFM'.

    But why don't we look at some fields that perhaps are not part of our aptitude. How much time and effort have you spent learning about,
    - a recipe?
    - fashion and clothing?
    - fine art?
    - your elected representatives (quick, name the ones in the State capital ... Wash DC? ... local judges? ...)
    - giving your girl/boyfriend a mind-blowing orgasm?

    Now, you may say, 'but these things aren't important to me; I don't have time for them.' And then you'll understand why all the 'lusers' don't RTFM.
    • by Nindalf (526257) on Friday July 05, 2002 @09:52PM (#3830815)
      This isn't about being interested or not. This is about people who clearly want the result but are unwilling/unable to learn the process.

      This isn't about disgust with people who say, "I don't want to program my VCR." it's about those who say, "The VCR is too hard to program, I can't learn it." Usually, this can be translated as, "I am too lazy/frightened to bother trying."

      In my experience, if you have authority over these people, you can easily make them figure it out. Without authority over them, they'll make weak excuses why they shouldn't bother trying. If they have authority over you they'll get you to do it over and over again, regardless how much of both your time and theirs this wastes. 90% of what computer class teachers do is say, "You have to try."

      It's a truly pathetic phenomenon. I could throw theories at you about why it is, but I'm not sure why most people's minds work that way, they just do.
      • by guanxi (216397) on Saturday July 06, 2002 @11:44AM (#3832898)
        It's not that I haven't shared your frustration, but I've noticed everyone continues behaving the same and I think there's a rational explanation:

        I think of it as a simple micro-economic question: Programming the VCR is worth 50 to them (50 of what, I don't know). Asking me to do it costs them 10 (and costs me 10). Doing it themselves costs them 100, so it's not worth it for them to do it themselves. If they learned it, their cost would decrease, but you can't learn everything -- and their cost of learning a new technology is much higher than yours.

        Which leads to another micro-economic concept: Specialization. They spend their time and effort learning about (e.g.) cooking and doing it; I spend mine on technology. We help each other out. It's much better than me cooking mediocre food and them struggling with their VCR. Also, they learn *new* recipes much faster and I learn new tech much faster.

        if you have authority over these people, you can easily make them figure it out.

        If only I had more authority ... Yes! the world should be ruled by all-powerful -- but benevolent -- geeks. Selected by their /. karma. Mod me up, and I will put a Palm in every hand. ;-)
  • There are too many stupid people on earth.

    We need to make things harder to use, and eventually as a result the stupid portion of the world population will be culled out of the gene pool.

    Of course, for this to work we'll need to graft lethal devices onto simple household appliances, but i'm sure there are enough bitter sociopathic techies out there to make this a nightmarish reality.
  • interface (Score:2, Funny)

    by depsypher (177056)

    Why do today's software and consumer electronics users expect to be able to fire up their new toy and magically have a complete understanding of how to use it

    Haven't you ever watched Star Trek? Whenever the crew is finds itself on the bridge of an alien ship, it usually takes them about 5 seconds to figure out how to download the entire database, transport the stranded crew member and turn off the self destruct sequence. And meanwhile I'm still looking for a powerful IDE with a decent interface :(

  • Over the years, both as an end user and as a coder, I have found that software falls into one out of two catagories.

    1) Software that I understand what it is supposed to do
    2) Software that I have no clue what it is supposed to do.

    For example: I have NO understanding of accounting. None, nil. A mystical and dark art done by pencil pushers.

    I don't think it is POSSIBLE to write an accounting package that I will find user friendly because I don't understand the basic premise of what should happen.

    Similar things can be said for 3D modeling packages and FPS. I rue the day that Quake came out.

    On the other hand, I undertand how Word Processors should work. I know the basic functions that should be there and I can pretty easily switch from one to the other without slowing down keystrokes.

    ---
    That, I think, is the major issue of "User Friendly." In the day and age of Star Trek and the computers of TV, the people just want to say "TiVo, record me a good show on TV tonight" and it will be done.

    Users will NEVER master basic software until they understand what the software does. Aunt Tillie will never be good with her word processor until she unlearns her typewriter. (She will never unlearn her typewriter because the text field of her mail program works like a typewriter _sigh_)

    You can't tell users not to open an attachment, because they have no clue what an attachment is. The concept, if they have any at all, will bring about an image of a photograph paper clipped to the letter or a small flyer tossed in the envelope. You don't "open" attachments, you just make sure they are there.

    Aunt Tillie will never understand clearing out her browsers cache because she has no clue about a cache. She will never understand installing a new video codex because those things are outside her realm of experience.

    Computers don't follow physical rules and so all of their worlds knowledge and understanding will fail to prepare them for the world of computers.
  • The purpose of any tool, whether it's a hammer, a TiVo or Perl, is to enable its user to do something. The goal is to get something done, not to use the tool. The less that the tool gets in the way, the easier it is for the person using it to do what they're trying to do. Learning about the tool creates a hurdle on the way to doing something. As in running, the fewer hurdles, the better.
  • by fm6 (162816) on Friday July 05, 2002 @08:44PM (#3830627) Homepage Journal
    Here's a conversation I have -- not a lot, but often enough. Some context: like a lot of Slashdotters, I'm the person everybody in my family, and a lot of their friends, turns to when they have a technical problem, from not being able to configure PC software, to programming an overdesigned digital watch with a poorly translated manual. I also explain things for a living (writing programming manuals), so people who are curious about basic details often ask me the "dumb questions" they're afraid to ask other geeks.

    Now, every once in a while I get asked this question: how is it that a VCR can record a TV show when the TV isn't turned on? Yeah, I can hear the snickers. But I get this from a lot of basically intelligent people. And the frustrating thing is, I've never found an explanation that makes sense to the asker. To me it's obvious, "You see, there's two tuners, the TV has one, the VCR has one...." But the eyes just glaze over.

    So the whole idea of Making Systems User Friendly is just plain bogus. It assumes that people can come to terms with any system if you just find the right methaphro for them to use. Doesn't work.

    In the real world, there are three solutions to this problem:

    1. You do a better job of explaining the basic concepts of the system to your users. But only a few really brilliant teachers seem to have much luck with this approach.
    2. You build systems that do a good job of hiding the unfamiliar paradigm with a simpler paradigm ordinary people can wrap their minds around. But again, this takes a certain brilliance on the part of the designer, who has to be at home with both paradigms.
    3. You take the Kuhnsian approach [emory.edu]. That is, instead of trying to bridge the nerd-mundane gap, you wait for both sides to die off, to be replaced by big-thumbed [nctimes.net] folks who've grown up with the technolgy and have no trouble coming to terms with it.
    Now, you might think that solution number 3 is basically a cop-out. And I'd agree. But I think it's the solution that will be implemented -- by default.
  • by Malor (3658) on Friday July 05, 2002 @11:47PM (#3831182) Journal
    This is really NOT the forum in which you want to post this kind of question. It feels like you had already drawn a conclusion "users are dumb!" and you wanted support in that conclusion. You'll get plenty of it here, but I don't think it will be very useful advice.

    A quick example... about three years ago, I commented that you should always use a UPS on a Linux box, because the ext2 filesystem was fragile. (there was much more to this, but in the interest of brevity I'll omit it.)

    So what did I get in reply? "You're a moron, you should be manually editing your filesystem when it's corrupted and using backups of the superblock." And other posters appeared to agree with him. I don't think I got even a single reply in support of my stance... that I shouldn't have to, that a properly designed fileystem wouldn't have these problems. I'll not repeat the whole argument. Either you will understand why this was a ridiculous thing to say or you won't. But the blame-the-user mindset was firmly in place... it was MY fault because I didn't know enough, not the fault of the designer(s).

    Read the book "The Design of Everyday Things". It is a great set of examples of how badly real-life things can be designed... and how a properly designed real-life thing should automatically guide the user into using it correctly. A door that pushes, for example, should NOT have a handle, it should have a push plate... and maybe a handle for the other side, because it pulls on that side.

    According to research, there are two basic ways that humans organize data and navigate through the world: "knowledge in the head" and "knowledge in the world". People who use the former are Slashdotters... they use their memory as their primary navigation device. They tend to trust their own memories over things like street signs and maps.

    The other type of thinker uses the world around him/herself to keep them organized. WHERE the piece of paper is tells them WHAT it is. They'll trust a street sign over their memory every time. They don't try to store the entire world in their head, and (this is the crucial part) they get confused when input isn't consistently mappable to output.

    A car is easy to drive for everyone because inputs translate to outputs in a simple, direct way. There are only a few states and only about five main inputs. Anyone tall enough to see over the dashboard can successfully move a car with an automatic transmission.

    For 'in the world' thinkers, however, a computer is a deep mystery. Inputs don't translate into outputs. In a car, if you push the accelerator, the engine revs up, and the car usually goes faster. On a computer, if you click the mouse, a zillion different things could happen, depending on where the pointer was, what mouse button you pressed, what program was running, or what the time of day was, or what have you. This means computers are HARD for 'in the world' types.

    That is part of what was so successful about the Macintosh. One button. Short menus. It's still complex, but the inputs map more closely to the outputs, and the onscreen cues make it easier for externally-organized people. The internal states of the machine are more clearly reflected on screen.

    Just because something is complex on the inside doesn't mean it has to be complex on the outside, too. A modern car is an exceedingly complex device, and it takes a lot of training to be able to repair one if it breaks... but pretty much any idiot can drive. (and, judging from what I see on the freeway every day, every idiot does. :-) )

    Computers can be this way without sacrificing their power. But it's easy to blame the user and ignore the problem when the solution isn't easy. Look at my ext2 experience. Back then, it was my fault. Now that we have journaling filesystems, it's obvious that a well-designed filesystem doesn't need manual editing of the superblock after a power failure.

    Likewise, we'll someday look back and realize that gadgets didn't have to be hard, we just made them that way. And it's nobody's fault but ours.

    • Your description of in the head thinkers being somehow better able to deal with computers than in the world thinkers is nonsense. I'm working for a husband and wife couple as a technical advisor. The husband is what you describe as an 'in the head' thinker while the wife is an 'in the world' thinker. The wife without exception has an easier time dealing with computer-related issues.

      A typical exchange between her and I would be something like her asking me how to do something in Word. She would start Word, go through the steps necessary to get her to the problem, and then with the info on the screen she would describe what she wants to do and what she tried to do that didn't work. If I ask her to describe something in the abstract, without it being on the screen in front of her, she will always insist that she show me on screen. She frequently makes comments like 'I'll remember what the problem was when I see it again' (meaning the document she was working with). The 'solution' that she wants from me is always how to navigate the interface to do what she wants, rather than an abstract explanation.

      In contrast, the husband when asking for help does so without looking at the monitor, trying to explain the problem in the abstract. I have to insist that he bring up the problem on the screen so I can show the solution because the abstractions I give him wouldn't have a referent in his mind otherwise. A typical example of the contrast is that when the wife wants to find a file, she immediately goes to her documents folder (this is on a Macintosh) and looks visually for the file she wants, with some broad parameters as a guide to narrow her search. When the husband wants to find a file, he asks himself what sort of file it is, and where in his directory structure would he most likely have saved it. He frequently decides that the file is in (say) 'artwork,' is unable to find it, and then thinks about it more and decides that it must be in 'images,' etc.

      The husband distrusts 'in the world' knowledge and insists on having everything in his head, while the wife distrusts 'in the head' knowledge and insists on dealing directly with the world. Neither is computer-savvy, but I've frequently had times when I spent several hours plodding along with the husband through simple problems, then spending a few minutes with the wife and having her understand much more complicated situations easier.

      So there's nothing about 'in the head' thinking that is necessarily better suited for technical problems. The intelligence of the person in question (i.e., their ability to effectively use whatever type of thinking they have), is the key factor. What you're describing above is an 'in the world' thinker whose resolution is much coarser than a 'in the head' thinker. There's no reason why an 'in the world' thinker would necessarily be unable to differentiate between a mouse click in one context and a mouse click in another. And there's no reason why an 'in the head' thinker would necessarily be able to.

  • by Ilan Volow (539597) on Saturday July 06, 2002 @05:07AM (#3831981) Homepage
    The 80 year old grandfather's problems with the TiVO can be attributed to the fact that as people age, they experience a decline in Fluid Intelligence (their ability to deal with novel problems that do not draw upon previous experiences). It's not that the grandfather was stupid, or that he didn't read the fine manual. It was that his brain's ability to deal with a new situation that didn't draw on his past experiences was not what it used to be. When you also consider the decline in performance of short-term memory that the average 80 year-old experiences, it is really no surpise the grandfather had so much trouble.

    To design something for someone of that age, you have to draw upon their Crystallized Intelligence(the store of knowledge or information that a given society has accumulated over time). You might (if you're *really* a geek) be able to do something like rig up an analog alarm clock to the TiVO and expoit the grandfather's 30 years of experience setting alarm clocks to get him to successfully set the TiVO. Yes, he'll probably still need a TV Guide to look up the time so he can set it in the alarm clock, but the point is that the show will be recorded. It sounds crazy, but older adults often exploit their crystallized intelligence to create strategies that work around deficiencies in fluid intelligence.

    If people hack network interface cards into their TiVO's, why not hack Grandpa interface alarm clocks into them as well?
  • by Mauddip (74237) on Saturday July 06, 2002 @09:26AM (#3832397)
    The reason most UIs are confusing is simply put: OSes and UIs are designed around the system (bottom up), whereas a user approaches the system from the highest standpoint (UI -> top down).

    A user with no knowledge about the system workings feels he or she is constantly pushing a stick into a jar of what seems to be unchangeable jelly. Is it strange a user feels difficult to learn something like this?

    And to put this into the 'current situation': Windows has a more intuitive UI because many users have seen it 'grow'. They or their neighbors have worked with DOS or Windows 3.1 and have seen the 'system'. UNIX boxen and Linux has only been used by a select group of individuals and the rest has not seen it grow to what it is right now. That is why people feel that Linux or UNIX is less 'intuitive' than Windows is.
  • by Mr_Silver (213637) on Saturday July 06, 2002 @12:00PM (#3832955)
    A long time ago, myself and a number of other people would link to a chat based program ("talker") on their slashdot sig. It went something like this:

    uberworld.org [uberworld.org]

    That was it. In short, it's a like a MUD, except it's full of people who sit around (mainly students and sysadmins) and chat about whatever they want all day. It's proper name is a "talker" and it used "telnet".

    Now this is where the problem lies. I consider the interface to be obvious. You have a bunch of commands and help files called with "help" and it's all very easy.

    But the people logging in from Slashdot, just didn't have a clue. And by that, I mean they had no idea what to do. These are people who use UNIX all day long and yet they were lost.

    So I looked at the mistakes they made and I added handholding, better information, cleaned up the help files and stuff but STILL and this is the clincher: even then, people just didn't bother reading the information on the screen.

    Even when you first log in, there are a couple of pages of information that tell you what to expect. When you actually "arrive" in the main room, you get told of the useful help file to read. Before you register if you type a command wrong, it again points you to that help file!

    Most never even found the "say" command. They would log on, scrabble with a few commands, ignore the friendly points on the screen and the automated robot that pointed them to help files and in the end give up.

    In the end, I now ask people who want to link, to actually point to a website (see my sig) in an effort to stop people logging on and being rather clueless.

    So what am I saying here? Nothing can ever be too user friendly. But it's amazing (and sometimes amusing) to see that even those people who assume that they are cream of the crop when it comes to IT issues get totally and utterly lost using something that we have both 18 and 40 year olds using with little to no IT experience at all.

    The problem comes about when there isn't enough testing. We learnt a lot from the confusion of slashdot people, but unfortunately you get to a point where you just cannot do any more but hope that users think for themselves.

    (As an aside, if you can read and can handle telnet and some basic commands - you only need 20 odd to get started - then feel free to drop by and chat, website is here [uberworld.org])

"You don't go out and kick a mad dog. If you have a mad dog with rabies, you take a gun and shoot him." -- Pat Robertson, TV Evangelist, about Muammar Kadhafy

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