Friday, April 07, 2006

Beyond software usability: The case for luxury

Over the past couple of years I have been increasingly drawn into the ongoing debate on usability of security. I now think that the persuit of usability is a mistake.

The problem with the term 'usability' is that it reduces the problem to strict utilitarian goals: people find computers difficult to use so lets find ways to design computer software that makes it easier. The nadir of this approach was the vastly irritating dancing paper clip 'clippy' that Microsoft decided to inflict on users of Microsoft Office.

I don't just want a user experience that meets my minimum criteria for acceptance. I want a system that tries to exceed expectations. I want more than mere utility, I want luxury.

UNIX provides utility. UNIX with a modern GUI interface can even be said to make an attempt at usability. But short of a complete ground up re-write nobody could ever mistake UNIX for being luxurious.

Each time I plug a device into my Windows XP a little balloon appears to tell me that a new device has been detected. Presumably the designers thought this might be helpful. If I happen to plug a USB 2.0 device into a USB 1.0 port it warns me that this will cause the device to be slow. Presumably because the designers thought I really wanted to be nagged into buying a new computer.

What the designers of XP do not appear to have thought about is how to turn the stupid balloon help notifications off for good or how to set the task bar so that when it hides automatically it stays hidden until asked for. There is actually an obscure registry setting that can achieve this but playing hunt the registry key is hardly my idea of luxury.

A luxurious user interface does not constantly nag for attention. It values my time and takes care not to disturb me without a good reason.

Is luxury possible in a software system? In the 1980s the inventors of Space Invaders and Pacman proved that it was. A video game is a user interface so good that people will pay money to use it. Pacman was so good at this that it caused a national change shortage in Japan.

I don't want every computer program to turn into a video game. In fact I find that one of the more irritating properties of audio and video player software is the apparent need to support sixteen different skins, none of which bears a close resemblance to the look and feel of the platform.

I don't want to be patronized by the computer either. In an attempt to make the computer easy to use Microsoft added Clippy the backseat driver. This mistake would never have been made if the objective had been defined as luxury.

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