Egad, It’s User Hostile

I started to write this post as “User Friendly,” but after reading all sorts of blogs on that subject, I changed it.

Each of these blogs proposed a list of four or five features that describe user-friendly software. Here is my own summary:

  1. Simple
  2. Clean
  3. Intuitive
  4. Reliable

There were many words surrounding these four. In some blogs there appeared to be some meaning associated with those words. In many there was none. All seemed redundant. [Sort of like describing sympathetic as having sympathy—KD]

Simple is perhaps the most difficult. How often have you confronted a simple idea that you wanted to internalize and discovered as you wrestled with it exactly how complicated is was?

Clean follows simple. As I read, I kept finding clean described as simple. Part of me wants to make clean a complement to simple or perhaps combine them. A clean and simple interface. I can’t imagine either clean or simple without the other.

Reliable is a new concept. Does the software always do what it is supposed to do? Is it buggy?

Intuitive is last. Every blogger believed that a user-friendly interface will allow the user to know just by looking at the screen what to do next.

Merriam-Webster defines intuition as (1) “the power or faculty of attaining to direct knowledge or cognition without evident rational thought and inference,” (2) “immediate apprehension1 or cognition” (https://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/intuition) I’m the wrong person for this idea. I won’t say that I don’t ever get flashes of insight; I do. I also know that those flashes come only after a struggle of rational thought and inference. Athene has not sprung full-grown and fully armed from my brow.

1 Apprehension here is used in MW’s third sense: perception, comprehension. It has nothing to do with fear.—KD

As I struggled with the concept of user friendliness, I thought I ought to look again at Excel, in some minds the epitome of user friendliness. [What a crock. I could tell stories…—KD] So I rebooted my machine from Debian to Windows (always painful) and started Excel. Once I had a spreadsheet loaded and was contemplating how to test friendliness, it struck me. One of my bloggers had offered up MS Office as an example of user hostility. His issue was the ribbons that Microsoft implemented several years ago and the struggle their user base had adapting.

How often is change used to simulate innovation? How often has Microsoft labeled change as innovation? [Microsoft is a piker compared with the textbook publishers; I could name a few textbooks whose six editions all had the same material. Way to kill the aftermarket, guys.—KD] I went back to Debian.

I remember switching to Quattro Pro from Lotus 1-2-3. At first it was dollars and cents. Quattro Pro was less than one fifth the cost of Lotus 1-2-3. I remembered the joy I felt using Quattro Pro. It had more features, but was it user friendly?

I found an old backup of Quattro Pro [The triumph of the hoarder—KD] and copied it onto my hard drive. This, it turned out, was all the installation I needed. Debian provides DOSBox, a DOS emulator. I used it to start Quattro Pro. I tried building a simple spreadsheet to remind myself how it worked.

Things were turned around. If I wanted to copy, I first selected copy from the menu; typed in the upper left and lower right corners of the source block and typed <ENTER>. I then typed in the upper left corner of the destination and <ENTER> again. I’m used to highlighting the source block with my mouse, right-clicking for a menu, and selecting copy.

While the mouse and the GUI interface changed how software worked, the keyboard procedure was easy to understand and to use. The latest version of Excel has many enhancements, some of which speed up construction of a spreadsheet. It also has a lot more functions on its ribbons—if only I could remember which ribbon and what the pictures on the ribbon actually mean.

How long did it take you to understand what a pivot table is? Can you find it on a ribbon on the first try?

I left out one idea that my research uncovered: the principle of least astonishment. “The behavior [of the software] should not astonish or surprise users.” (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Principle_of_least_astonishment)

In my use of APL I’ve been struck over and over again how easy it is to type in a line of code and have it do exactly what I thought it would. APL uses an old-fashioned teletype-like interface to do powerful things. Because of the simplicity and cleanliness of its design, I can do those powerful things.

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