Tuesday, April 04, 2006

Declaration of usability

We, the users, are fed up. Computers are too hard to use and efforts to make them easier often make the problem worse. While we are mightily impressed that if cars had improved at the same rate as computers we would all be driving machines that cost a dollar, go at a zillion miles an hour and are capable of going to the moon and back on one tank of fuel progress in the area of what we used to call ‘user-friendly’ computing has been less than stellar.

The cars of the 1900s were slow and unreliable but driving one didn’t require a degree in nuclear physics. One could become an expert in every aspect of the earliest motor cars in a few weeks of intensive training. The need for the driver to continuously adjust the fuel/air mixture during a trip was eliminated before the mass production era. Synchromesh gears eliminated the need to double declutch in the 1950s (?). While the car has not matched the computer in cost, speed or fuel economy improvements the improvements in safety, reliability and luxury should put the computer industry to shame.

For the past twenty years the ‘user-friendly’ qualities of graphical user interfaces have been touted. In particular the ‘desktop’ metaphor developed at Xerox Parc, popularized by Apple and later adopted by Microsoft has succeeded brilliantly in its originally intended purpose of helping first time users overcome their fear of computers.

The mere act of adding a GUI does not make an application usable any more than adding a go faster stripe and a spoiler makes a car go fast. A user interface that is optimized for encouraging the naive user to learn how to use a computer is not the best user interface for daily use.

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