usable in any place a human can be used



[caption id="attachment_523" align="alignright" width="300" caption="Like most computer related things this type of experimentation will have less blond women"]Female in lab[/caption]

I love my mom, she is a kind, intelligent, funny person. She has worked 2 jobs since I was just a little kid and she still does. For most of my childhood she worked in what we refer to in this country as the "Service Industry." This is a nice euphemism for mind-numbing tedium, the fact that she put in 14-16 hour days to give me the chance to sit here and blog and make good money consulting is a testament to her devotion as a mother. I remember growing up she worked at a Gas Station and at Arby's, sometimes bringing home some tasty chicken sandwiches or Apple Turnovers.

Now my mom works retail and in an office. She gets to work in a nice office and do office work which means that she now has to professionally use a computer. Being the "computer" son I get the calls when there is some task that falls outside the scope of her knowledge, and after all she's sacrificed for me, I'm ecstatic that I get to help her.

The things she needs help with our never very complicated, sometimes its an unfamiliarity with an FTP Client or looking for a way to open up and print multiple files quickly and easily. She normally has figured out or been told some way to get the job done, but it's so slow and tedious that there must be a better way. Normally after a few minutes of explanation we figure out a way that she can do her job faster and easier, and everyone wins.

In my job as a software developer I often have to think about the user, and its an interesting relationship. On the one hand if there were no users then I would make no money and that would be sad, on the other hand the users often end up taking a simple and elegant piece of code and twisting it into a horrible abomination so they can understand it better. The mental images of a slack-jaw fool and a well-meaning bug filer compete in my head. Now though I have a new user mental model, my mom.

I know that she is hardworking, intelligent, and does know how to use a computer for daily tasks. Yet, even with these great user attributes, she still doesn't discover things that I do, and I wonder why.

[caption id="attachment_525" align="alignleft" width="300" caption="Yea that\'s assembly not basic, go complain about it in the comments."]green screen with assembly[/caption]

Perhaps its a generational difference, I can't actually remember a time when I didn't have a computer. I remember distinctly getting the old green and black computer with 5.25in disks that I could play submarine hunting games on from my Uncle Marty. One of the first things I did with this new toy was to get a book from the library full of BASIC games and start typing them here, that's right I've been programming since I was about 6 years old. The thing that no one ever told me was that I could break the computer, to me it was a toy, and the worst thing that could happen is I mess up my disk and have to try again. As I moved up to more and more powerful machines I've always kept that same mindset, the computer is there to accept my commands, there is almost nothing I can do to it that can't be undone.

My mom on the other hand is pre-occupied with the idea that she might break the computer. This is a major difference between computer people and users. Watch a power user trying to figure something out, they will experiment see what happens when they click this or that, issue this command, or right-click in this box over here. A normal user on the other hand normally just uses the program in the way that they've been instructed to, instead of exploring the interface.

In a perfect world everyone would read the user manual, in real life though people don't. Even if people did, it's hard to learn reading, it's easy to learn doing. The power user learns through trial-and-error how something works, once they feel comfortable with the bulk of the application they may turn to the manual to figure out some of the trickier bits. The normal user will never get to a level of comfort to attempt to master the tricky bits. As the power user explores they feel validated and gain a sense of control, giving them a desire to assert their control over the rest of the system. The normal user is simply performing a rote task, the tool is not there to be explored and mastered, it merely performs some function.

Its the difference between becoming a magician and learning a card trick. I can learn a card trick and practice it everyday, becoming incredibly good at the card trick, this in no way makes me capable of sawing a woman in half (and having her live).

Trying to get users to experiment involves a few things

  • Everything your application does should be easily and apparently reversible.

  • Experimentation should be rewarded, never punished

  • The Application must cope well with the unexpected, no nasty error messages

  • Context Sensitive Help

[caption id="attachment_527" align="alignright" width="300" caption="TextMate is full of win"]textmate[/caption]

Case in point: I've recently got my sexy new iMac with the excellent TextMate for coding. It is one of the best experiences I have ever had, but it's not because it is easy. TextMate encourages you to explore and experiment, defining a function, def :tab: will automatically write the end and position you to write the methods. The Bundles menu is quick and accessible, the bundles make it easy to figure out what to do and the reward is instant. All of this culminates to making the software seem usable and easy, even though its very complex.

Turning users into explorers is no small task, but the payoff is great. The more a user feels in control, the more they explore, the more they explore the more in control they feel, its a positive feedback loop. The more in control a user feels the more they associate your project with being easy to use and generally a good piece of software.

1 comment:

  1. One of the best parts of pair programming with you is watching you write code and stop halfway through a line of code to go search for the bundle command to do your job for you. That or yelling the bundle command shortcuts at you from across the room. I haven't decided which is more fun.