Join 3,494 readers in helping fund MetaFilter (Hide)

Tags:

You have to click on the text box?
July 7, 2011 10:45 AM   Subscribe

Using a computer for the first time. A Firefox UXer has an interesting encounter with someone who has never used a computer before and we all learn something. (Also, Jessamyn has a nice comment.)
posted by dame (132 comments total) 64 users marked this as a favorite

 
Don't worry, an administrator will hope him.
posted by WinnipegDragon at 10:49 AM on July 7, 2011 [4 favorites]


What really strikes me about this article is how much Joe's computer experience mirrors that of a lot of people I work with, people whose responsibility it is to use computers and who have been using them for decades. There's something really wrong with modern interface design. I don't know what the problem exactly is, but the source of the problem is that computer interfaces are developed by computer people, who are already familiar with the semiotic vocabulary of the modern GUI and with the concepts used in computers. Sure, the folder tree is a metaphor, but it's a terrible one when my own mother, who has been using computers for twenty years, still doesn't really understand it. And this problem isn't limited to the older generations, either, as anyone who has done college computer tech support can attest. Whoever can figure out how to make computer interfaces actually intuitive for a given culture will become a billionaire.
posted by Electrius at 10:52 AM on July 7, 2011 [6 favorites]


There is little modern applications do to guide people who have never used a computer. Even when focusing on new users, designers tend to take for granted that users understand basic concepts such as cursors, text boxes, and buttons. And, perhaps, rightfully so – if all software could accommodate people like Joe, it would be little but instructions on how to do each new task.

More generally, if you are optimizing for new users you are not optimizing for power users. Not all tools are as simple as a hammer. Complicated things are sometimes complicated to do. If you simplify the tool, you've probably put some tasks out of reach.

But, Joe was looking for a single point of help in an unfamiliar environment, and he never truly got it – not even in a Help menu.

While this is true (and I thought his "suggested sites" thing was pretty good and even I didn't understand the error message there at first since I don't use IE) it's a little unfair. Like, say you've never used the postal system before. How do you get a block of text to your friend in Chicago? There's even less help available than Joe had on the computer. There's no help menu in real life. You are going to have to ask someone how to do it and they'll explain the concept (addresses and delivery) plus the details (envelopes, stamps, mailboxes) etc.
posted by DU at 10:54 AM on July 7, 2011 [20 favorites]


My mom used a DOS-based system at her part-time job for the better part of 15 years, until they finally switched to a system that used Windows, Outlook, etc. That's also about the time she got into using email, etc on her home computer, probably about 6 years ago.

I found out last year that she didn't know what the Enter/Return key was. I asked her how she started a new paragraph in an email, and she said she just used the space bar to get to the next line. She also couldn't grasp the difference between Backspace and Delete and didn't understand and/or just ignored the Shift and Tab keys (Me: "Ahhhh, that's why you never capitalized anything!") She was terrified every time she pressed a key that something would go wrong on the screen and she would not be able to navigate back to what she was doing.

She's in her early 60's and is pretty sharp, but our conversations taught me that looking at a computer through her eyes can be a really frustrating process. It also taught me a LOT of patience. Interestingly, she picked up my iPad in the car yesterday and was able to navigate to an iPod playlist pretty quickly with minimal direction.
posted by buzzkillington at 11:04 AM on July 7, 2011 [11 favorites]


does your mother use file folders and file cabinets much? I first encountered the file folder metaphor with Windows 3.1 when I was a teenager - and it looked just like the file cabinet standing in our living room, and worked the same way. (That said, I am a little folder crazy - I have folders nested 10 or 12 layers down).

I found it was interesting that Joe ignored the icons to fixate on the text; I wonder if computers have gotten too image oriented? (I like to hover over icons myself, until their name pops up).
posted by jb at 11:05 AM on July 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


I agree with what jessamyn says. I have observed many people using computers, many of them eleven years old, and they devise the most convoluted, confounding, bizarre, recursive methods to make things work.

When I got my first personal computer (not counting the Commodore 64 or the computers I used at work for many years prior), my (then-unemployed) husband claimed he hated the things and wouldn't touch mine. I had to buy another XT three months later, because he wouldn't get off it. He had devised some elaborate mental metaphor in which WordPerfect was the operating system, nothing he said about what he was made any sense to me, and he had crashed, locked up, and fried my computer more times than I could count.

Now he is a computer consultant. And I'm still using my computer mostly to browse and to write, just as I did way back then.
posted by Peach at 11:07 AM on July 7, 2011 [10 favorites]


not knowing the return/enter key seems strange, unless she never used a typewriter either. I'm just old enough to have had both typewriters and computers when I was a kid, and I learned "return" on the typewriter first.
posted by jb at 11:08 AM on July 7, 2011 [5 favorites]


There's no help menu in real life. You are going to have to ask someone how to do it and they'll explain the concept (addresses and delivery) plus the details (envelopes, stamps, mailboxes) etc.

A few weeks into my first year of college, the guy who lived across the hall from me came over to ask how to stamp an envelope so he could mail a letter. I assumed he was asking about unusual postage rates, so I asked him how much his envelope weighed and where he was sending it. He was mailing it locally.

After a little more Q&A, I realized he was asking how to stamp an envelope, because he had never mailed a letter before. Incredulous, I asked him how it was possible he didn't know this, being a legal adult and a reasonably intelligent guy. If he hadn't mailed anything before, hadn't he at least received something? Turns out his mom always opened all his mail for him and had it sitting neatly on his desk waiting for him every day when he got home from school.

I never cease to be amazed by the basic things some people don't know.
posted by phunniemee at 11:09 AM on July 7, 2011 [20 favorites]


My mother once worked for an office that used Wordperfect on DOS, with some kind of file manager interface. She once managed to delete the entire contents of the Wordperfect directory, because the file manager showed her a long list of files with names that seemed like nonsense to her, and she thought to herself, "none of those files are mine, so I guess I don't need them." The file manager gave her no warnings and happily allowed her to erase the one program she needed to do her job.

To this day, she is petrified of making any mistakes for fear she'll break something, and only execute tasks with steps she has memorized. She does not understand why she does any of those steps, and has never asked me to explain them. She has no desire whatsoever to explore or experiment, doesn't know a thing about the interface language for the Mac or PC despite using both for years, and seems to be genuinely untrainable. Sit her down in front of a system she's never used, and she'll just stare blankly at the screen doing nothing. And this is a woman with a 4 year college degree who, before she retired, did extremely complex tasks every single day.
posted by 1adam12 at 11:18 AM on July 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


It’s very rare in San Francisco to meet a person who’s not used a computer even once, but such people are amazingly useful. It’s a unique opportunity to see what someone who hasn’t been biased by any prior usage reacts.

Not so different from locating a lost tribe that has never seen fire or metal tools.
posted by exogenous at 11:20 AM on July 7, 2011


What is a fire tool? Like, a blowtorch? I've never used on of those.
posted by Astro Zombie at 11:22 AM on July 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


People seem to construct mental models of how computers work, and they're sometimes quite different than those of more experienced computer users. Sometimes there isn't really one at all.

One of the things I find I have to do when teaching is to teach basic search techniques using legal databases. Most legal databases don't work like google, they require some sort of explicit search syntax as opposed to simply mashing together all the possibly relevant search terms. This means that you need to think about how the search engine interprets your search and construct some sort of model of its operation. It's really interesting to watch students who have never really thought about how search engines work start to realize how little they understood about something they use everyday.
posted by sfred at 11:27 AM on July 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


...a blowtorch? I've never used on of those.

Aha! The perfect subject for my little...experiment.
posted by Floydd at 11:27 AM on July 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


This is my mother.

My grandmother was a punchcard operator, back in the day. DOS utterly baffled her. My grandfather still asks me to check the config.sys and autoexec.bat files when his laptop (running XP) is acting up.

Ultimately, a present-day user interface is the result of a set of metaphors being iterated over a generation's time. I imagine that the way I feel about twitchy first-person video games is much the same as the way that the person described in the article feels. I got off that train back around the time of Mario Kart (for the SNES) and the train kept going without me. Now, I'm completely lost.
posted by gauche at 11:31 AM on July 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


I'm not convinced that this problem has a solution. Like DU points out, the postal system is a good example, because people who have a cultural grounding in all of the semiotic entities that make up the postal system's "interface" generally find the process of sending a letter to be fairly intuitive. The people who lack that grounding will find the whole process to be confusing and arbitrary. It's the same with computers: now that we've got a roughly standardized lexicon of computer interface elements, the people who are familiar with them find them intuitive. The problem lies in the fact that cultural guidelines for computer usage are not yet as universal as are the cultural guidelines for something like buying a banana from the corner store. Until that changes, it seems like our only option is retooling the metaphors we use in computer interfaces, but it may just be the case, like DU said, that there isn't a good set of metaphors that optimizes for ease of use for first-timers and preserves higher-level functionality for power users. More over, it all seems really futile once you realize that, after fluency in the metaphors is achieved, their original content doesn't matter anyway!* It seems to me that improving accessibility to computers will go farther in solving this problem and with less resources than attempting to redesign the whole interface lexicon from the ground up. That, or we move away from the general purpose computer model into a more fractured and precisely targeted system, but that has its own problems.

* A major complication here being the tendency of proprietary software and hardware manufacturers to redesign interfaces for reasons external to usability concerns, which is a barrier to developing a common language. It's hard to tell whether things might ever stabilize in that regard.
posted by invitapriore at 11:32 AM on July 7, 2011 [7 favorites]


When my mom was first learning how to use a Windows computer, scrollbars were confusing: you click and drag the scrollbar down to move the page up? It was a difficult concept, but I've seen it for years - I must've learned that at some point, but it seems to intuitive I hadn't really thought about how it must be kinda backwards. It's like a weight on a pulley -- when the scrollbar is at the bottom, the top of the page is as high as it will go.

I do a lot of training, and it's always amazing how much or little people have figured out themselves. I often have to do a bunch of un-training, too, for consistency and speed. Much of my teaching is just listening, so I can understand where they're starting from. There's this company that's going paperless and I'm training them how to use our software. They're so embedded in the fact that they have piles of paper on their desks (even though they're doing data-entry in the computer), that they had trouble wrapping their mind about doing everything in the computer -- the biggest hurdle was getting them to conceive how to do their job without the pile of paper.

Because these are seasoned data-entry people, I wrote out a series of instructions in which they could do every step with keyboard keystrokes -- that's how my data-entry people are trained, and much faster than mousing. This company's data-entry people liked doing it with the mouse, because it was most similar to how they do it now, physically "touching" the paper, even if only with the mouse pointer.
posted by AzraelBrown at 11:32 AM on July 7, 2011 [6 favorites]


Now that I think of it, I don't believe she ever did take typewriting. She never worked a desk job and even her part-time job only required a small-ish amount of very specialized paperwork, which, once she was taught how fill out the forms on the Apple II they used, came pretty easy to her.

She uses her computer for one thing - email. She accesses her Roadrunner account through Outlook Express. She was very upset to learn her address book was tied to her Outlook and not her Roadrunner account.

She doesn't use files, file folders, or even search engines. She checks her email and opens photos. On the other hand, I look like a genius when I save the day by finding something on Amazon that gets to her 2 days later. It's the little things.
posted by buzzkillington at 11:33 AM on July 7, 2011


That was interesting; not least for the fact that the writer seemed to be surprised by Joe's behaviour. As someone who started an IT career in 1980 and didn't knock it on the head until 2009, I was not surprised at all. Because it has (or rather, had) been evident to me since about 1994 that software designers, user experience people, whatever the trendy name is these days... have lost sight of a very important aspect of systems design: don't throw too many options at people at once. Really, don't. Not if your product is intended for general use by a wide range of ordinary people. One of the reasons Google stormed the world is because it originally offered a really, really simple interface. One of the reasons I don't have a TV is because I look at the multicoloured button orgy that constitutes the typical TV remote and I think, "You know what? Just fuck off. If you don't understand why having a button for every individual function is fucking stupid, I won't give your company money". Okay, that's nowhere near the main reason I don't have a TV, but all the same...

Having masses of features on a single screen is fine and dandy if you're a person who has previous experience of the fundamentals of how to interact with that type of screen. If you don't, it's just an impenetrable shitstorm of confusion and error. My mother won't use her computer because she just cannot get it. She sees all these words that mean nothing to her (or they mean something other than the way she's always understood them), she sees all these cryptic little pictures (not icons, little pictures), frames, tabs, windows, toolbars... and her mind just petrifies in the face of it all. I try to get her to let me gently guide her through it but she refuses. She says "It's no good, I'm too old, I'm too set in my ways. This is just something your generation came up with and my generation can't get it. It's natural. When you get to be my age you won't understand what the kids do either."

So far that's only true of piercings, tattoos, The Decemberists and Red Bull, but I take her point.
posted by Decani at 11:37 AM on July 7, 2011 [10 favorites]


I heard an interesting anecdote quite a while ago from somebody trying to teach an aircraft pilot how to use a mouse.

They found it very confusing, on an airplane if you push the stick/yoke forward the plane goes down. But on a mouse if you push it forward it goes up.
posted by Confess, Fletch at 11:37 AM on July 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


Electrius: "Whoever can figure out how to make computer interfaces actually intuitive for a given culture will become a billionaire."

The problem here is with the word "intuitive". It doesn't mean what 99% of people think it means. Nothing we do exists outside of the context of previous experience, apart from biological instincts. We can breathe, feed from our mother's breast, and walk. That's about it. (And walking doesn't even really qualify.) Everything else is learned.

When we say "intuitive", we really mean is, "built heavily upon existing experiences". And it's true that a lot of modern products fail in this area: they either assume a set of prior experiences that isn't there, or they don't assume enough.

But that's not the issue with Joe. What Joe needs isn't an intuitive interface, he needs an interface that will teach him how to use it. It's like we sat him down at a controls of an 18 wheeler and told him to start driving. It would be alien to most people, but imagine that Joe never learned to drive a car.

My 60 year old parents (and my 3 yr old nephew), love the shit out of their iPad though. They fall into the very wide range of people who have the minimum set of experiences required for that interface to be "intuitive."
posted by danny the boy at 11:38 AM on July 7, 2011 [16 favorites]


I found out last year that she didn't know what the Enter/Return key was. I asked her how she started a new paragraph in an email, and she said she just used the space bar to get to the next line.

My mother used to do this until we pointed out to her how strange it looked on our end. We taught her what the return key does and she's used it since!

She just turned 60 this year. It was funny for awhile watching my mom and aunts get on Facebook. They didn't understand at first the difference between making a status update, commenting on an item, or sending a private message. But eventually me and my cousins got them all sorted out (and now they all mock me when I post technical stuff on my wall).
posted by sbutler at 11:38 AM on July 7, 2011


I'm currently typing this from my desk at an adult literacy agency. I teach people to use computers, including people who have *never* used them, all the time. Some are illiterate, some are not. Some are tradespeople, others are seniors. They run the gamut. I just taught two classes this morning. Internet. (I get a kick out of talking about the Soviets nuking mainframes at the start of my lecture on hits history/structure, even if this is partly hyperbole.)

When I talk to students, I generally make the following points:

1) Computers are stupid. They must be given precise instructions, and generally don't make assumptions about what you want.
2) Computers usually reject approximation. People who work with their hands in particular start with "ballpark" executions of tasks, and then gauge the response of the object to home in on how to finish up. This has become less true with search, by the way.
3) Computers are "flat." Most objects we use present clear priorities for action in the shape and size of their controls. Nobody would ever think you turn your key to steer a car -- there's a big steering wheel in your face. Computers use galleries of icons and lists that don't push the thing you ought to be doing most frequently.

If you provide reasons why interpreting an interface and use it appropriately are tasks that require skill, you get rid of a lot of self-consciousness. I also emphasize a methodical process of elimination using slow mouseovers to locate commands. This is very important, as scattered pointing can lead users to point at/click the same set of incorrect locations *over* and *over* again.

Incidentally, I am also finding that more of my seniors prefer a touchpad to a mouse. It's easier in the face of some motor skills issues, and the mouse is counterintuitive because it does not sense rotation -- *every* new user bends his/her wrist to "reach," and ends up sending the sensor the wrong way because turning the mouse right sends the mouse's bum, where the sensor is, left.

These three points should probably help guide interface design. Do something about UI flatness. Make the OS smarter by hooking up to really good searchlike resources online. Find a way to let people do "ballpark" work. That's all.
posted by mobunited at 11:39 AM on July 7, 2011 [43 favorites]


I've been teaching computers in public libraries for about three years now, and the first place I did this was in a sort of digital desert in a rural community where broad-band wasn't (and still isn't) available. Without the Internet, your average person probably doesn't have much use for a PC, and depending on your job your average person may or may not have had any reason to ever learn how to use a computer. The biggest obstacle is exactly this:

I found out last year that she didn't know what the Enter/Return key was. I asked her how she started a new paragraph in an email, and she said she just used the space bar to get to the next line. She also couldn't grasp the difference between Backspace and Delete and didn't understand and/or just ignored the Shift and Tab keys (Me: "Ahhhh, that's why you never capitalized anything!") She was terrified every time she pressed a key that something would go wrong on the screen and she would not be able to navigate back to what she was doing.

It doesn't help that a lot of computer assistance comes from sons and daughters and, I don't know what it is, but relatives often make very poor teachers, leading to a lot of name calling and hurt feelings without much learning.

Jessamyn's comments are exactly right. Computer use, like many skills, is a matter of confidence. What the library gives a user is a machine that they can't screw up, and this is an important thing to tell them when you're teaching a class. Computers are expensive machines, and many older adults worry about privacy concerns related to them (rightly so). Teaching computers in a calm, controlled, and supportive environment does a lot to alleviate the tension associated with computer use for a novice.

One of the emerging trends in the literature that surrounds this issue is that maybe computer classes, instead of being a run of four instructor lead seminars, should be a continuous workshop experience. True, you do have to teach basic skills, but these skills are like anything else, they have to be practiced. Once a person is away from the safe zone of the library, they often don't have the nerve or the means to practice with a computer. How do you learn to speak a language if you're not practicing every day? Computers are as much their own language as they are anything else. A workshop, held once or twice a week, where users maybe have half an hour of instructor lead discussion about a topic (social networking, computer security, image editing) and then an hour of social participatory classwork seems like an ideal solution. The idea of an instructor giving a series of classes that somehow teaches people to use a computer, after a lot of experience in this very setting, is beginning to seem like a more and more outmoded concept - especially as we begin seeing users with needs that are somewhere between competent user and absolute beginner (namely the babyboom generation, which in large parts has been trained to use computers in the workplace).
posted by codacorolla at 11:39 AM on July 7, 2011 [7 favorites]


When my mom was first learning how to use a Windows computer, scrollbars were confusing: you click and drag the scrollbar down to move the page up? It was a difficult concept, but I've seen it for years - I must've learned that at some point, but it seems to intuitive I hadn't really thought about how it must be kinda backwards. It's like a weight on a pulley -- when the scrollbar is at the bottom, the top of the page is as high as it will go.

This kind of cracks me up because MY mental metaphor is that when the page is at the top, the scroll indicator is at the top, and when it's at the bottom, the page is at the bottom. The fact that the text on the page moves "up" never even entered into the equation in my mind. Down is down.
posted by Medieval Maven at 11:39 AM on July 7, 2011 [12 favorites]


I heard an interesting anecdote quite a while ago from somebody trying to teach an aircraft pilot how to use a mouse.

They found it very confusing, on an airplane if you push the stick/yoke forward the plane goes down. But on a mouse if you push it forward it goes up.


The main reason that there's a "reverse mouse" option in every FPS game ever is to accommodate people who used to play flight simulators back before there were FPS games and found mouse look to go the wrong direction.
posted by tylerkaraszewski at 11:40 AM on July 7, 2011 [5 favorites]


Also, there really is *something* to Facebook. I can't tell you how many times I have been asked to turn a machine on (client doesn't know how), find IE (client has trouble recognizing icon) and after typing "Face" in any given text field and clicking until something happens, that person logs in and spends half an hour busy in the FB.
posted by mobunited at 11:41 AM on July 7, 2011


This is my mother.

That reminds me of a time I was working the helpdesk and a remote user was having trouble with the accounting program. I asked them to send me a screen-shot of the error message.

A few minutes later I received an e-mail with an attachment.

The attachment was a scan, of a copy, of a printout, of a screenshot of the accounting system, pasted into Word.
posted by odinsdream at 11:42 AM on July 7, 2011 [18 favorites]


Once upon a time, in the pre-computer days, if you wanted to know how to do something, you asked somebody. Or you got a book out from the library. Or you took a class. It does not seem totally unreasonable to me that, for people who have never used computers before, these routes to learning how to use a computer should be perfectly adequate. My grandparents don't expect the computer to teach them how to use the computer any more than they expect their oven to tell them how to cook.

I think with scrollbars, they need to be explained more like: This is where your eyes are. When you read, your gaze starts at the top of the page and moves down. The scrollbar shows you where your gaze is on a page that isn't actually moving.
posted by gracedissolved at 11:42 AM on July 7, 2011 [4 favorites]


One of my most illuminating work experiences was back in the mid 90s, I converted a previously paper-based process to a web service, which saved my company tons of money and improved productivity; but it required that a whole lot of people in offices around the US learn to use a GUI, a mouse, and a web browser.

And because I was the rabblerouser who'd conceived this in the first place, I had to be the one to teach them. So I got a rep from every office and walked them through the steps as best I could, mostly over the phone.

And there was one guy who totally changed the way I saw users. He was an older guy, a few months from retirement, and if I'm honest with myself, I was really throwing a wrench in his works, disrupting him with all this stuff right in the home stretch like that. But he was always gracious and patient with me, and never ever acted like he was put out by anything. So one day, while we were working through something, I started telling him about all the cool things that were out there on the internet, how he could email his grandkids, find information, things like that. And he, as always, politely, interrupted me and said (paraphrased, obviously), "I've got an RV. I've been working on it for years, getting it just right. It's almost ready, and in a few months, I'm going to retire, and my wife and I are going to get in our RV, drive across the country, visit some people we haven't seen in a while, and mostly, we're going to ride rollercoasters. I have a map of the country, with rollercoasters marked in every state, and we're going to ride as many rollercoasters as we can."

He told me he could tell I really enjoyed this stuff and he could understand why, but he just didn't really care. He had other stuff going on. Lots of it. And all he needed from me was to learn how to perform some specific and limited task, and he didn't have the time or interest to pursue it beyond that.

So beyond all of the very astute observations there, I find it's always been helpful to remember that some people really don't care. It doesn't mean they're stupid or lazy or any of the other hostile things you hear tossed around in technical fields. It just means that some people have interests, talents, and proclivities that are different from ours, and it's our job to help them get the things they need to do done so they can go ride rollercoasters.
posted by ernielundquist at 11:43 AM on July 7, 2011 [70 favorites]


Oh, and the other fun story: My grandfather asked my grandmother over the phone to open an e-mail on the computer at the house. She told him she tried, but ran out of room on the mousepad.
posted by odinsdream at 11:44 AM on July 7, 2011 [4 favorites]


This kind of cracks me up because MY mental metaphor is that when the page is at the top, the scroll indicator is at the top, and when it's at the bottom, the page is at the bottom.

This is the programmer in me, but...

My mental model is that the entire vertical track of the scrollbar represents the entirely of the document. And the button/slider represents/controls my viewport of that page. So when the slider is at the top, my viewport is at the top. And when the slider is at the bottom, the viewport is at the bottom.

Of course, I have this model/language because that's how the UI API works in every major OS and I've written programs that use it.
posted by sbutler at 11:47 AM on July 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


Also, there really is *something* to Facebook. I can't tell you how many times I have been asked to turn a machine on (client doesn't know how), find IE (client has trouble recognizing icon) and after typing "Face" in any given text field and clicking until something happens, that person logs in and spends half an hour busy in the FB.

In my opinion, it's difficult to teach things like search, browsing, or mouse use without a specific goal. And it helps if the goal is fun. When the goal is something like finding a job or applying for social security, a task with already large stakes, then it throws an extra roadblock and an extra consequence for failure into the works. When it's something like chatting with your friends, then I think that puts you in an entirely different, and much more playful mindset.
posted by codacorolla at 11:49 AM on July 7, 2011 [3 favorites]


I remember the first time I used a mouse and a gui, and also the first time I used a Web browser. Both had that feeling of "uh, what exactly am I doing here" but I thought both were remarkably easy to learn. I was playing shufflepuck on that Mac in 5 minutes.
posted by mrgrimm at 11:49 AM on July 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


I've also given up trying to teach my relatives about the location bar. My dad -- who knows he wants to go to "cnn.com" -- will launch his browser (Google homepage), type "cnn.com" into Google, search, and click the first result. My aunt loves Nancy Grace (I know, I know) but where does her bookmark point to? Not the Nancy Grace page but the Google search results for "Nancy Grace".

Inefficient: yes. But I figure the practice will at least keep them from ending up at domain mistype squatters.
posted by sbutler at 11:54 AM on July 7, 2011


Apple gets this. Most of the interface metaphors that non-geeks never grokked have been eliminated from the iPhone and iPad, with the result that toddlers and old people alike have little trouble figuring out how it works.

In the next version of Mac OS X, the direction of scrolling is even reversed by default.
posted by designbot at 11:56 AM on July 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


One of the sort of interesting things I've discovered about how little people use things the way we expect them to is the reliance that people have on Google.

If I wanted to know how to cancel my account for a specific website, the first thing I would do is go to that website. From there I'd start looking around at account options, help pages, FAQs, etc, for cancellation buttons, or information on where to find a cancellation button.

But for a lot of people, the first thing they do is go to Google or their built-in search bar and search on cancelling their account. They do whatever the first link tells them to.

How do I know this?

Because if the site they're trying to cancel their account on is SiteTalk.com, the first link they get when they google is not to SiteTalk.com, but to the Site Talk (MetaTalk equivalent) board on Chowhound.com. It helpfully tells them that they can email my team and we will remove their account for them. They never realize that we mean their account on, you know, Chowhound, and they never question why you would send email to moderators@chowhound.com to cancel your SiteTalk.com account. So they email us asking us to remove their account, which we can't find in our system, because it doesn't exist.

This happens several times a week.
posted by jacquilynne at 11:58 AM on July 7, 2011 [14 favorites]


I'm a long time computer user, and I'm against replacing all the text with icons just because that approach might have worked for another company (say Apple). Half the time it seems that "intuitive" means that text has been replaced with glyphs and you must "intuit" what they do. Unless you are very, very good with design, I think that text is always clearer.
posted by subdee at 11:58 AM on July 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


That article was interesting! It reminded me of the way my mom first started out with the internet. I encouraged her to learn by experimenting and trying things out, but she was afraid of "wrecking the computer" by clicking on the wrong thing. It took a long time to convince her otherwise.

AzraelBrown: When my mom was first learning how to use a Windows computer, scrollbars were confusing: you click and drag the scrollbar down to move the page up?

My mom also didn't understand scroll bars at first, but not the way they moved--she just basically ignored them. I'd say, OK, now click on the button at the bottom of the page, and she'd say, There's no button there. She didn't understand that she needed to scroll down to see the button--she thought the page ended at the bottom of her screen. Until she said that, it didn't even occur to me to explain what a scroll bar was.

jb: I found it was interesting that Joe ignored the icons to fixate on the text; I wonder if computers have gotten too image oriented?

I think a lot of supposedly-universal icons just...aren't. I have written out more than one reference sheet for elderly relatives to explain the symbols on VCRs/DVD players: a square means stop; a right-facing triangle means play; two left-facing triangles means rewind; a quotation mark means pause.

A few years ago, I had a humbling reminder of how frustrating this can all be when my computer at work got upgraded to the most recent version of Office. I left to teach my morning classes, came back after a couple of hours, and suddenly my computer had a new version of Word that was totally different. I'd always been able to figure things out for myself, but the new interface was so non-intuitive for me that I couldn't even figure out how to print a document.
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 11:59 AM on July 7, 2011 [3 favorites]


This rings very true with my experience of teaching elderly library patrons how to use a computer. Many came in and had no idea what to do at all. Some of them owned computers but didn't actually know how to turn it on. I had a couple of people who, when told to point the mouse at something, would pick it up and try to point it like a remote control. The way I got through to them was similar to what mobunited describes: many don't understand the level to which you have to tell the computer. exactly. what. you. want. Conducting their first searches, they'd be told to find (to adopt the article's example) an Italian restaurant in the local city; rather than say "Italian restaurant San Francisco" or something like that, they'd start with something like "Restaurants." The interface of a computer constitutes a kind of language that has become ubiquitous enough that it now assumes a certain level of basic fluency (see the efforts to find help where, well, you'd expect it to be found) that a completely new user just doesn't have.
posted by synecdoche at 12:00 PM on July 7, 2011


The weird things about the folder metaphor are at least two:
(1) nesting; you usually don't put folders in other folders. You put folders in drawers, which are in file cabinets, which are in rooms. (I'm not saying that every level of the hierarchy should have a different name though!)
(2) as people have pointed out, sometimes people delete unfamiliar files which turn out to be needed to run programs. There is no analogous danger of, say, throwing out the microwave because it is not food.
posted by madcaptenor at 12:17 PM on July 7, 2011 [3 favorites]


In the next version of Mac OS X, the direction of scrolling is even reversed by default.

Huh, I was wondering when they were going to end that incongruity. It was very weird to have the same touch action scroll down on iOS and scroll up on MacOS. My wife has iPad and MacBook and I honestly got confused when switching between the two.

I would have opted for the old MacOS default, but they had to pick one or another. It does seem to indicate that they are going big on touchscreen for MacOS.

The weird things about the folder metaphor are at least two:
(1) nesting; you usually don't put folders in other folders. You put folders in drawers, which are in file cabinets, which are in rooms. (I'm not saying that every level of the hierarchy should have a different name though!)


Yes, but most educated folks have been submitted to the idea of outlines, e.g.

I.
   A.
   B.
II.
   A.
      i.
      ii.
   B.
   C.

etc. That's essentially what a directory is. If you don't have a i. and a ii. you put it all in A or B, etc.
posted by mrgrimm at 12:21 PM on July 7, 2011 [3 favorites]


odinsdream: "The attachment was a scan, of a copy, of a printout, of a screenshot of the accounting system, pasted into Word.

Rediculous, but it's not entirely your user's fault. Think about how difficult it is in windows to email a screenshot.
  1. Press the arcane key combo.
  2. Open an image editor (what you do from now on depends on which editor you use, if any).
  3. Press another arcane key combo (or navigate a menu tree) to paste the image.
  4. Save the document somewhere on your hard drive where you'll be able to find it. Hopefully you know how your hard drive is organized, and what type of image format to use.
  5. Open your email program (what you do from now on depends on which email program you use)
  6. Compose a new message and press "add attachment". Navigate the file system to the place where you saved the image. Press OK a couple times. Then press send.
OK most of that you'd have to do anyway when printing out a screenshot, but I think the biggest hurdle is step 4. I know a lot of people who don't really know where they save things. (But they might know where the scan-to folder is). This hasn't been helped by the fact that Windows changes its file structure every release. In 3.1 you were supposed to save on C:/. Then you were supposed to save in C:/My Documents. Than it was C:/Documents_and_settings/some garbage etc.

I've often thought that the best thing Microsoft (or Apple) could do to improve usability would be to implement a system wide Explorer (Finder) which ONLY browsed the home folder. You could tell people "do anything you want in here". They would never see a gigantic list of files they don't recognize, and they wouldn't have to worry about breaking by deleting or moving a file they shouldn't. This would be the Finder that shows when you open and save documents and when you click on your desktop folders, though you could still keep the "full system" Finder as a stand-alone program around for power users. I would much prefer this approach to the current (iOS) trend of letting each application do its own file management, and "email this file" being the only way to share between apps.posted by Popular Ethics at 12:29 PM on July 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


I think there's really a more fundamental issue going on here. I'm related to or friends with a number of people who have a lot of trouble using computers. My grandmother is one. But a dear friend only a year younger than me, who has been using computers longer than she's been an adult, is another.

I've noticed that they seem to have a particular cognitive tendency in common: they're entirely unselfconscious about the metaphors they use to order their lives.

I think this may really be the problem.

Interfaces are, indeed, metaphors. A lot of people have suggested that the problem with interfaces is that the metaphors are counter-intuitive or inaccessible. But what do you do with someone who doesn't get that it's a metaphor? These people have metaphors, sure, but they don't really know that they're using metaphors, or what that even means. There's some failure to compute, as it were, on the whole "This stands for that" concept, and very little use of the "This is like that" when they go to learn something new.

Just watch some of these people when they go to try to do something they haven't done before. Most people will just assume that whatever it is is somehow similar to something else they've done and look for cues to help them sort out what's going on. The people I'm talking about just don't do that. Which is why they need cookbook directions for getting anything done: there's no underlying comprehension of the steps. And it's that comprehension which makes learning one system valuable in learning about others.

I'd be really interested if anyone with more knowledge than I about learning styles or cognition in general had any input here, but it really seems to me like some people just don't tend to order their thoughts in metaphors like most of the rest of us do.
posted by valkyryn at 12:32 PM on July 7, 2011 [12 favorites]


My mum's biggest hurdle to learning what her computer could is that she's afraid she's going to "break it" by touching the wrong key or by dragging something into the wrong place.
posted by bonobothegreat at 12:33 PM on July 7, 2011


mobunited "Do something about UI flatness"

Say what you will about Office 2010, but the Ribbon bar does this. I was peeved by it at first (and I still am whenever I have to do something unusual), but more often than not the thing I want to do is RIGHT THERE, in a big, captioned button, at the top of the screen. Microsoft must have spent a fortune figuring out the best way to lay that thing out.
posted by Popular Ethics at 12:37 PM on July 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


I think this discussion is more interesting than the reflections of the guy in the article.

It's not at all surprising that new-user Joe would be vexed by these relatively sparse interfaces. Imagine Joe looking at the old Yahoo front page from the 90s, with the directory-of-subjects text listing. I bet he would have better luck with that.

I also think it's telling how crappy and unhelpful the Help menu has become.
posted by LobsterMitten at 12:40 PM on July 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


I remember the first time I used a computer, or keyboard for that matter. I found it disturbing that "o" is smaller than "0" on the screen, yet on the keyboard the opposite is true. It's pretty much gone on along those lines.
posted by StickyCarpet at 12:43 PM on July 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


Think about how difficult it is in windows to email a screenshot.
Press the arcane key combo.


The "arcane key combo" is a button named "Print Screen."

I believe you must be thinking of MacOS. (Open Apple + 3?)
posted by mrgrimm at 12:44 PM on July 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


The fact that the text on the page moves "up" never even entered into the equation in my mind. Down is down.

As someone else mentioned, we've been conditioned to view the "window" as the moveable part -- you're sliding your 'lens' up and down over a stationary page -- even though the window frame stays stationary and the page is what 'appears' to move. Since the page was what was moving, that was her "my action causes this reaction" view of what was happening. The window itself isn't affected by what she was doing with the mouse, so it was off her radar.

As for talking about learning framed by social context: A few years ago, when testing things to be sold on eBay, I taught my daughter how dial from a rotary telephone. I grew up with one, and figured it was pretty much self-explanatory. However, there's not even really any context for this anymore, especially since 'dialling' has been largely replaced by contact-lists. You stick your finger in a hole, and turn it all the way, and then the dialling actually happens while it rotates back, so don't touch it until it stops, and THEN you can dial the next number. It's like Stargate, but for ordering pizza.
posted by AzraelBrown at 12:45 PM on July 7, 2011 [17 favorites]


One of the emerging trends in the literature that surrounds this issue is that maybe computer classes, instead of being a run of four instructor lead seminars, should be a continuous workshop experience.

This is where I have been going lately.

Didn't want to self-link on someone else's blog, but this is basically the subject of my book. And the website for my book has a ton of handouts and links to stuff that's pretty useful. But at some level, if you have people who are

1. not confident
2. not good at metaphors
3. easily irritated
4. have terrible memories
5. have poor motor-skills coordination

This sort of thing is very very challening. I teach technology classes in the library, at a local tech center via an adult education program and I have a "drop-in" time which is basically open lab that people can come to with problems they want to solve, and I'll help them work through it. I will not do it for them. There is not a class. You have to wait your turn, though maybe you could ask other people about how to get started. I stress the things that mobunited said

- the computer is a giant calculator
- the computer is difficult to break
- the computer has "defaults" or pre-sets that are useful to know about and many can be changed to make things easier for you [the home page on the browser, for example]
- the computer helps you solve problems, it is not a problem-solving device on its own

We don't spend time bitching about them except to say "Yeah that must be frustrating, let's get started" I think endless kvetching about computers helps set up a culture where we're allowed to hate our technology and blame it when we can't get our work done. These problems are manageable and solvable for the most part, but you have to have a handle on the Big Five above [or workarounds, there are great solutions for the mobility impaired but you have to know to ask for them, for example] in order to figure out what the real problem is. The real problem is rarely what you think it is.

I read this article with interest, but I thought it was a lot like tossing a kid into the deep end of the pool and being surprised that he can't swim. I start with mouse lessons. Mouse lessons can take a while, but they're their own thing, not a "hurry through this so you can get to the good stuff" I was susprised that the guy picked up the mouse as well as he did actually. I was not surprised that he was frustrated.

most educated folks have been submitted to the idea of outlines

Seriously rethink this idea. There are many people of medium-to-low intelligence who have trouble with metaphors in general, much less a file/folder/outline metaphor. I'm not saying they may not need to learn this, but coming from a "I can't believe you don't know THIS" perspective is visible on the face of many people trying to understand novice users and their hurdles and I think to be truly empathetic we need to figure out what they know and then teach them, not just marvel at all the things they don't know. Because, at some, level if they don't know it, the fact that they don't know it only matters if you've just got one metaphor that's not working. Find another metaphor. Keep trying. Most people can learn in the right environment, but I'm never sure if most people can create the right environment. This is the best thing I've read on the subject. I miss Phil Agre.
posted by jessamyn at 12:52 PM on July 7, 2011 [50 favorites]


The "arcane key combo" is a button named "Print Screen."

So tell me why I have to hold down "Ctrl" at the same time?
posted by Popular Ethics at 12:53 PM on July 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


And tell me why I have to press a button marked "Print" to do something that doesn't involve the printer?
posted by emelenjr at 12:54 PM on July 7, 2011 [7 favorites]


At least on the mac, there's a program (and a menu item) you can launch called "Grab" which lets you point at what you want to capture, preview the image, save it or email it all in one go. That's still difficult I suppose, but it's a bit easier. (On the iPhone, you just press the two buttons in order, and the screenshot goes to your pictures folder / app. Easier still, but with fewer options).
posted by Popular Ethics at 12:55 PM on July 7, 2011


There is a similar program on Windows. Many people are unaware it exists, however, since it's buried in the accessories menu.
posted by jacquilynne at 12:57 PM on July 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


One problem is that computers expect you to know how to use computers to figure them out. My father, who is adequate at using a computer for the everyday tasks, cannot figure out how to do new things, and is entirely unwilling to do things like "look at the options in the menus to see which words look right" or "google it and follow the directions in the first link" so he calls me -- and I have a different version of Office, which is what he usually is asking about -- and I get to google it, then read him the instructions. I cannot convince him to try to do that himself. The worst is when I have to explain something to him so he can then explain it to his friends (he's the most computer literate of them).

I do not recall having half this trouble teaching my grandparents to use the internet, though my grandmother did once call me to tell me something showed up on her screen saying she's the 201,413,353th visitor to some site and she won something, what should she do?
posted by jeather at 12:58 PM on July 7, 2011


The "arcane key combo" is a button named "Print Screen."

Labeled "Prt Scr". And when you press it, nothing at all appears to happen. It certainly doesn't print anything.

The legacy keys are weird. Who knows what Scroll Lock and Pause/Break is for any more?
posted by We had a deal, Kyle at 12:58 PM on July 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


Rediculous, but it's not entirely your user's fault. Think about how difficult it is in windows to email a screenshot.

I don't fault them at all, really, but as far as I recall, you can just paste the screenshot directly into Outlook's message composition window.

They'd already clearly figured out how to take the screenshot, and how to paste (since they pasted it into Word).
posted by odinsdream at 12:58 PM on July 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


Oh, and why they printed it and scanned it when the copier has a giant "EMAIL TO" button and a big LCD with everyone's name... no idea.
posted by odinsdream at 1:03 PM on July 7, 2011


AzraelBrown: As for talking about learning framed by social context: A few years ago, when testing things to be sold on eBay, I taught my daughter how dial from a rotary telephone. I grew up with one, and figured it was pretty much self-explanatory. However, there's not even really any context for this anymore, especially since 'dialling' has been largely replaced by contact-lists.

Just like in this charming video! (previously on MeFi)
posted by hurdy gurdy girl at 1:04 PM on July 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


Re: page and scroll - I think it depends on whether you see the scroll bar as moving the page, or as moving you. I see the page as stationary, and the scroll bar represents my place on it. If you saw yourself as fixed and the scrollbar as moving the page - I could see how that would be confusing.
posted by arcticwoman at 1:04 PM on July 7, 2011


>I taught my daughter how dial from a rotary telephone. I grew up with one, and figured it was pretty much self-explanatory.

I had a boss who believed that the last "intuitive" interface was on the rotary phone. Maybe he was wrong, and maybe the last "intuitive" interface belonged to some stone tool. There have always been problems with new technologies.

With fresh computer users, I start by telling them that there's nothing they can do to break the computer just by clicking with the mouse; I do eventually tell them not to casually click the confirmation for file deletions but that's somewhat later in the session, after they've grown comfortable with the idea of exploring and experimenting.
posted by fredludd at 1:12 PM on July 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


Most of what I wanted to say has been covered in the comments, but as someone who has worked extensively with new users, as well as teaching adult computer literacy, I've ended up strongly rethinking my own approaches.

1. Creating metaphors to explain what is going on or what happened often results in more confusion, rather than less, because the computer is already operating at a different level of abstraction than one might be used to, and adding a metaphor on top (e.g. explaining how it's like a car) ends up, in my experience, breeding confusion.

2. User interfaces are often tailored to letting the relatively experienced user move easily between tasks, rather than offering a clear next step at all times. I was forcefully reminded of this when iterating over a design for a tool for students, most of whom had little to no English, and fewer of whom had experience with computers, and using feedback to ensure that what they should do, at any point, was clear and prioritising this far above any amount of flexibility.

3. Accessibility options are, as a rule, awful. They either degrade usability, are hidden to the point where those who need them are likely to give up before they find them, or both. This isn't universally true. My favourite recent change in Opera is that they both made page zoom immediately available and demanded little co-ordination to use it. Now, if only it were evident what that slider was.

What I ended up remembering when reading about rotary phones is that, even as an unabashed geek who programs for fun and for money, I've been on the other side of the conceptual divide, with my grandfather questioning my abilities and intelligence because I typed the wrong things at the prompt on his computer.
posted by frimble at 1:16 PM on July 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


I've always advocated the Zen approach to tech support, that is "Just accept".

If the program pops up a completely illogical text box, or asks you to answer a question you already answered, just accept it and carry on.

Why do you need to click here then there, then click back over here? It doesn't matter, it's just what you need to do. Getting frustrated about it isn't going to help.

I find this works with a fairly large subset of people who seem to take computer failures rather...personally.
posted by madajb at 1:25 PM on July 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


It's called a scroll bar, not a page bar. You're moving further down the scroll. The parts currently invisible to you are wrapped around either the top or bottom scroll.
posted by Eideteker at 1:25 PM on July 7, 2011 [8 favorites]


After doing this sort of work for a few years is grating on the nerves and tested every single ounce of my patience. My biggest problem was inconsistency in software and operating systems. Keyboard shortcuts only work in one piece of the software, but not in others or icons and menus going all over the place in different version without explanation or documentation. Even if you are the sort who can teach yourself the documentation is usually pretty bad. So the only teaching method is trial and error, which requires more time than most people want to put in.
I would love to see an operating system that had the ability to control the user interface based on how comfortable you were with a computer. From something like an Ipad to being able to use the terminal without hinderance. If you wanted to, you could change a setting to allow more functionality and increase the abstraction of the metaphors to allow you to do more as you got comfortable with using a computer. Apple comes close, but they still have UX issues that prevent complete novices from using the computer like installing software from a DMG, but I guess that changed with the introduction of the app store. Really the future of computers is turning into appliances that do the limited things people want.
posted by roguewraith at 1:27 PM on July 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


I often have to remember that none of this stuff comes easy... I transitioned from an Apple ][ to the Macintosh and it had me flummoxed... until I used the interactive guide (with audiotapes!)

I often wonder why such things don't exist any more for new users.
posted by drfu at 1:28 PM on July 7, 2011


Re: page and scroll - I think it depends on whether you see the scroll bar as moving the page, or as moving you.

Neither? heh.
You move the scroll square and text appears. I've never felt the need to construct any sort of reasoning as to how it gets there.

It's a computer screen, constructing real life analogues to explain how it works is counter-intuitive to me.
posted by madajb at 1:29 PM on July 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


Interesting read. Of course, I don't see learning how to use a computer as any different than learning bake a cake or drive a car -- it's foolish to expect that everyone will be able to just 'figure it out' without specifically being taught to do it. Those of us who have grown up with them have an innate sense of how the operate, but I would no more expect my grandmother to suddenly be able to understand all the conventions of operating a computer (on any system) than I would expect her to suddenly understand all the conventions of social behaviour in say, Japan.

I think you can design software and machines of all kinds to be easier to operate, to be more consistent in their operation, etc. But for anything that involves more than pushing 1 thing to make it "go", people generally are going to need instruction.
posted by modernnomad at 1:39 PM on July 7, 2011


Why do we assume people should be able to sit down at a computer and simply know what to do? TV sets still come with instructions. Toasters still come with instructions. And computers...don't.
posted by Pastabagel at 1:44 PM on July 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


"The only intuitive interface is the nipple. After that it's all learned."
(Usually attributed to Bruce Ediger, but origins aren't clear)
posted by RikiTikiTavi at 1:45 PM on July 7, 2011 [3 favorites]


There is little modern applications do to guide people who have never used a computer. Even when focusing on new users, designers tend to take for granted that users understand basic concepts such as cursors, text boxes, and buttons. And, perhaps, rightfully so – if all software could accommodate people like Joe, it would be little but instructions on how to do each new task.

Like a Wii game!
posted by Sys Rq at 1:47 PM on July 7, 2011


And as any nursing mother/lactation specialist will tell you even the nipple isn't a very intuitive interface.

Interestingly enough I bet folks who've never used a computer before would have a better time learning a command line interface over a GUI...but even them someone still has to show you how.
posted by jnrussell at 1:48 PM on July 7, 2011 [4 favorites]


Why do we assume people should be able to sit down at a computer and simply know what to do? TV sets still come with instructions. Toasters still come with instructions. And computers...don't

Toasters and TVs are still pretty simple, in comparison.

I'd rather compare a computer to a car. Operating a car is complicated, it takes practice, and huge parts of the experience are deeply unintuitive and are, or at least appear to a novice, completely arbitrary. Your car comes with a manual, but it doesn't say a damn thing about how to drive, how to use the thing correctly, at all. Now, the stakes for learning to use a computer are a bit lower - much less chance of a novice accidentally killing themselves or a bystander - but it's a big messy weird system that we do not expect anyone to understand right off the bat. We teach it, we educate people in how to operate the system.
posted by Tomorrowful at 1:49 PM on July 7, 2011 [3 favorites]


The frustration I have with relatives is their difficulty in describing problems. I received this email from my mother:

"The screen on outlook is coming up and I can't see nor pull the right side in so you can see the whole thing. Got any suggestions?"

I asked her for a screenshot and immediately realized that would be an hour-long conversation. Fortunately, it's a 20 minute drive to her house, and my stepdad is an awesome cook.
posted by desjardins at 1:49 PM on July 7, 2011 [3 favorites]


n'thing the 'you can't break them' comments above. That really helps some people not be self-conscious. My grandpa, born in 1929, can build or fix anything mechanical, but a computer seemed so delicate and complicated that when he bought one, he was afraid he would break it. I just told him as long as he didn't beat on it or start taking it apart, there was nothing he could do that would hurt it, so go ahead and explore around. That seemed to do the trick. He uses it purely for recreation, but is quite competent.
posted by resurrexit at 1:52 PM on July 7, 2011


"The only intuitive interface is the nipple. After that it's all learned."

My problem is that when I suck on the nub on my laptop I can't see the screen very well.
posted by Kabanos at 1:59 PM on July 7, 2011 [7 favorites]


jb: " I wonder if computers have gotten too image oriented?"

Probably the most well known of 'bad iconography' in GUIs today would be the floppy icon to mean save. Beyond that, we have some webMethods developers and while I like the idea of visual programming, images don't make it intuitive to anyone but the designer.
posted by pwnguin at 2:01 PM on July 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


It's totally vertical, that's what I was told -- it's like coming up to a wall that goes up, damn near straight up, and I'm supposed to climb it. Over time, and more each time I came to the wall, it became less vertical, the incline less and less steep, except of course I was throwing new things into the mix all the time, so the new stayed vertical but what I'd struggled with at the start was simple now and hey, I began to understand the process of learning this.

But never forget to tell them that it's vertical when you first come to it. And to remind them, again and again, that a lot of it is going to be vertical as long as they are learning fresh information.

I taught one of my older sisters, over the telephone. (THAT is an interesting thing to do; I recommend you try it -- you have to ask them what they see on their screen, you have to walk each step of the way with them. I guess with the software now available where I could see her screen and/or take it over it'd be lots different.) My sister had a puter, she was very interested in it, but she was up against that vertical wall. It was a great thing for us, a way for us to communicate over the chasm of our differences, we needn't talk about religion or anything else if we were talking about clicking the Edit dropdown bar in Word or whatever else it was we were up to. We spoke a couple nights a week and did so for a long time, three months maybe, and it's not like I was Mr. Computer God like so many of you here, just that I was further down the road than she was, and she was absolutely motivated, she saw some things that she wanted and was willing to suffer the learning.

Again and again, I told my sister to just bang up against the software she was in, so long as she wasn't messing with files; just go up and open every dropdown, left-click on every possible thing on the screen to see if there is any goodies in the context menu, on and on. People ARE afraid of hurting their puter, reassure then that they can't, get them banging around in there.

It's suffering, learning is, often. I have this one friend who, in the face of her puter or her ipod, or her telephone, or ANYTHING that she hasn't done before (other than painting, in which she is totally fearless, one of my heroes) in the face of anything remotely technical she sortof starts waving her hands and arms around and going "Oh um oh I hate this it's so hard Oh Oh Oh" blah blah blah, etc and etc, fear in her eyes, and annoyance, she looks like she's got gas, she gets all jumpy. I have to make her stop -- if she will, when she will -- and walk her through it, one. small. god. damned. step. at. a. time, opening the little guidebook from the camera or whatever, stopping the show completely when she starts fluttering gaseously again.

It's like if a kid gets a sliver in their finger, and they come to you yowling and waving their hand about, and you tell them to still so you can help them, and then they jerk their hand away even more. You can't help them until they slow.

It takes time to learn, and willingness to suffer some. Sorry if I sound Calvinist or whatever, but I am in fact Calvinist, the one with Hobbes...

People will only go through these hoops if they are really motivated to learn, whether it's work ie money status power, or maybe they want to edit photos or make a web site or send an email or use this or that function on their shiny new phone or whatever else.

And now I'm gonna go suffer some, on the yoga mat, out on the boat dock -- it's 99 degrees here, in the shade, but I shall go, bravely, telling none of my privations or my great strengths in standing up against the great tides of human weaknesses and blah blah blah blah ...
posted by dancestoblue at 2:02 PM on July 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


We had a deal, Kyle: "The legacy keys are weird. Who knows what Scroll Lock and Pause/Break is for any more?"

It's for switching computers attached to KVMs, right?
posted by pwnguin at 2:05 PM on July 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


right-click on every possible thing on the screen
posted by dancestoblue at 2:06 PM on July 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


I have problems with user interfaces every time I go to my major client's office. He's a bit of a Luddite, despite having a degree from Harvard Law.

Point: I was doing something in front of him, and hit the floppy disk icon to save the file, and he went "What did that do?" I told him, and he said "So why is a black box the save icon? It doesn't make any sense!"

I explained about it being a representation of a floppy disk, and he looked at me askance. He was right... there were 11 computers in his office, and not one of them had a floppy. I, in fact, can't remember the last computer I owned that had a floppy. In the early days of our experience, I insulated him from having to use floppy drives by clever use of backup hard drives and ethernet.

I realized it was equally opaque to his kids and my grandkids: They've never seen a floppy drive.

There's something wrong with our symbology, and perhaps we shouldn't even be using symbols on icons at all. I don't know what would be better, though.
posted by pjern at 2:06 PM on July 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


There's something wrong with out symbology, and perhaps we shouldn't even be using symbols on icons at all. I don't know what would be better, though.

As others have suggested in this thread, there's really not a good reason why it couldn't literally say "save" instead of having an icon. Icons were originally implemented because of the low resolution of old monitors. My iMac has close to two thousand pixels lengthwise now, though, so individual pixels are no longer at a premium. Anecdotally, I've known people who don't understand what the row of little pictures are and use the menus exclusively, because the icons are worthless to them.
posted by Electrius at 2:11 PM on July 7, 2011


So, I had an interesting moment of disconnect with a person about 6 years younger than me last month (I'm in my mid 20s, she was a young college student working for me.) In our work we generate a pretty reasonable number of similar files (on a Macintosh), which have unique filenames (i.e. topic_DATE_number.txt). They're all supposed to be put on a particular place on the remote server, and then subdivided into separate folders for each topic and date. This is a system used by about 20 people, and it was all set up long before either of us was around.

Anyway, after a few weeks of her working there, I start noticing that the files are all over the place. I'm finding them on the server in funny places, sitting around the desktop, I think maybe once in the Applications folder. This is bugging me, and I'm grumbling and putting them where they are supposed to be whenever I find them, and reminding her where they are supposed to go. And then one day we're working on something and we need to access one of these files, and she types a partial name into the search bar and clicks on the first thing that matches. Later I was working on another project with her and watched her search for "Final Project" and click open several documents until she found the one she wanted.

I'm an over-organizer and obsessive sub-folder-er by nature -- But it was still really startling to realize that physical-location-on-drive meant so little to how she accessed and used the computer. It's just not that relevant for her, and "filing", as far as I can tell, became something she did because the lab protocol said you were supposed to. And it did make me wonder how long the file-drawer metaphor is destined to last...
posted by heyforfour at 2:14 PM on July 7, 2011 [8 favorites]


TV sets still come with instructions

Yes, but the instructions don't tell you how to watch TV. "How to watch TV" includes a lot of knowledge that's not in the instructions but are embedded in our culture:
- which shows are on? (There's probably a "TV guide channel" but the instructions won't tell you that.)
- which shows can you tell your friends you watched (even if you didn't) and which shows should you would never tell anyone you watch, but are guilty pleasures?
- what sort of chair should you sit in while you watch TV?
- is it okay to watch TV with the volume way up in the middle of the night? (yes if you live alone and you don't share walls with other people, no otherwise.)

The instructions tell you how to set up the TV so that it receives TV signals. (Which will most likely require either going back to the store to buy an antenna or multiple calls to your cable company.) The rest is up to you.
posted by madcaptenor at 2:21 PM on July 7, 2011 [4 favorites]


My iMac has close to two thousand pixels lengthwise now, though, so individual pixels are no longer at a premium.

Many public libraries where I live are still running screens with less than a thousand pixels. The real pisser about technology is that works for you doesn't necessarily work for everyone else. I agree, the disk is sort of silly to many people now, but many people also still have computers with disk drives. I know it's tough to get your head around, but it's very very true. We don't have a lot of research into what level of legacy computers people use at home but I know from personal experience that some of them are pretty old, and still running.
posted by jessamyn at 2:23 PM on July 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


It's not at all tough to get my head around. I work in a library where the public computers are old HP all-in-ones with floppy drives and a resolution of 1024x768. But we should design computer interfaces for computers being presently produced. This is for two reasons: firstly, if we do not, we are stuck in backwards-compatibility hell, and secondly, people tend to not update their software and thus the old interfaces will stay on the computers for which they are designed.

If I had plantation of the island, so to speak, I would make computers a less important part of the modern world so that interfaces could be designed only for power users. But that isn't the fact of the matter. The fact of the matter is that everyone in the first world is more or less obligated to either learn to use a computer or live a very marginal existence, and that computer-related errors cost time and money. On Sunday piece of malware rootkitted my father's computer and erased all his files. Luckily, he had backups, but the whole thing would not have happened if the computer had been designed in such a way that the user always was exactly sure what he was doing.
posted by Electrius at 2:35 PM on July 7, 2011


There is a similar [screenshot] program on Windows. Many people are unaware it exists, however, since it's buried in the accessories menu.

And it doesn't, AFAIK, exist before Vista, meaning that for those using XP and earlier, the only option there by default is still 'Print Screen' to copy a screenshot, then the pasting, etc.
posted by frimble at 2:42 PM on July 7, 2011


A couple years ago we did user testing on some software, and were trying to solve the floppy disk save icon problem. This was software intended for tweens, by the by. When asked if it made sense they said yes because it was familiar, but no because they didn't really know what it was. When asked for what would be better, they would, to a one, shrug and say, "the word 'save'?"
posted by Medieval Maven at 2:48 PM on July 7, 2011


Nice article, but the comments in both places are fascinating. I'm really pleased that computers are slowly becoming more human-centric and strongly believe that a well-designed touchscreen computer (like an iPad) eliminates a lot of the confusion that new users have. One notable thing about the iOS interface is that most buttons are labelled with text.

For instance, if I pick up my iPhone, it says "Slide To Unlock", with a big arrow on the box that needs to be moved. Very clear, though I'd be interested to see how easily my 70-something grandparents would pick it up. Next, there's a square with a phone on it, marked Phone. I press that. Now, if it's not defaulted to Keypad, I can see a touch of confusion. I might not necessarily associate Keypad with the desire to call now. But once I do, the numbers are bloody obvious, and most importantly the big green call button says Call in big letters. Lovely.

Caveat for anyone feeling moany - yes, there are unlabelled icons at the bottom of the Safari screen, for example. But they're unnecessary for the overall usage, apart from perhaps back and forwards, and don't do anything awful like change the user's page etc.
posted by Magnakai at 2:54 PM on July 7, 2011


They'd already clearly figured out how to take the screenshot

I don't know the accounting system, but if it was some DOS-based legacy app, there's quite a few of those that have a "hardcopy" button that sends a screenshot directly to the printer. I can easily see how someone that has used that function, but never heard of "Prt Scr" could come up with a scan of a printed screenshot.
posted by ymgve at 3:05 PM on July 7, 2011


A couple years ago we did user testing on some software, and were trying to solve the floppy disk save icon problem. This was software intended for tweens, by the by. When asked if it made sense they said yes because it was familiar, but no because they didn't really know what it was. When asked for what would be better, they would, to a one, shrug and say, "the word 'save'?"

Which reminds me that "Save" is a pretty unintuitive concept. You are doing modifications to some document, but they aren't really modifications until you press the magic button/key.

Google Docs is moving in the right direction on this, it constantly saves but at the same time keeps the old versions of your documents. There's still the problem of making a undo/rollback interface intuitive, but it's a big step in the right direction.
posted by ymgve at 3:16 PM on July 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


Which reminds me that "Save" is a pretty unintuitive concept.
Yeah, this is another thing Apple has killed for Lion. There's an easy-to-understand animation for going back through the revisions it automatically stores for you, plus the ability to create manual snapshots etc. Well overdue.
posted by bonaldi at 3:21 PM on July 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


This has been a fascinating to discussion. I'd like to post it to an IT list I monitor where they can get pretty snarky about clueless users.

I was reading Jessamyn's comment above and clicked over to the page about her book, which got me to the Amazon listing for it, where I may have found one of the best openings for an Amazon book review ever: "I'm not a librarian. I'm Jessamyn's mom...".
posted by marxchivist at 3:50 PM on July 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


Icons instead of text labels are not about saving pixels. You can draw the word "save" with a border in a seven pixel high, seventeen pixel wide area. Try finding an icon that compact. Icons are about not having to produce language packs for international versions. So instead of a fixed version that's easy to use if you speak English and a pain if you don't, we have fixed versions that are a pain to use no matter what language you speak.
posted by localroger at 4:20 PM on July 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


I bet everyone reading this thread has dragged the scrollbars all the way up and down at least a couple times by now.
posted by BeerFilter at 4:30 PM on July 7, 2011 [6 favorites]


"I'm not a librarian. I'm Jessamyn's mom...".

Alright, my new goal in life is to write a book that will get my mom to write a review that starts like this.
posted by madcaptenor at 4:30 PM on July 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


my new goal in life is to write a book that will get my mom to write a review that starts like this.

It's not quite as awesome as you might imagine. But I'm glad she liked the book.
posted by jessamyn at 4:38 PM on July 7, 2011


It's not quite as awesome as you might imagine.

Sure, but I need small goals. (Although writing a book is kind of a big undertaking for such a small payoff...)
posted by madcaptenor at 4:47 PM on July 7, 2011


(I love the mention of Phil Agre. I used to love the Red Rock Eater news service!)
posted by artlung at 4:51 PM on July 7, 2011


ymgve: "Which reminds me that "Save" is a pretty unintuitive concept. You are doing modifications to some document, but they aren't really modifications until you press the magic button/key."

On the one hand, implicit save is handy. Ubuntu's Tomboy uses it, and syncs out to Canonical's Ubuntu One cloud. On the other hand, one software project I worked on attempted to half-ass implicit save in a browser, with the added challenge of multiuser aware. In essence you're building a half-assed version of SVN for a database; now that I think about it, it's almost a perfect match to Google wave, but implemented by one inexperienced developer starting with a decade of legacy PL/SQL. It was a true clusterfuck, and apparently the latest deathmarch release goes live tomorrow.

Guess what I'm saying is that while it's great for personal use, it gets dodgy fast when you throw in HTTP.
posted by pwnguin at 4:59 PM on July 7, 2011


Once you make the connection between the computer's memory and your own (namely, that both of them are split into working memory and long-term storage), save is exactly what you'd expect. If you do a long calculation in your head, and then don't write it down or make an explicit effort to memorize it, would you expect to remember the answer tomorrow? Implicit save, then, would be analog to Funes the Memorious.
posted by simen at 5:36 PM on July 7, 2011


The weird things about the folder metaphor are at least two:
(1) nesting; you usually don't put folders in other folders. You put folders in drawers, which are in file cabinets, which are in rooms. (I'm not saying that every level of the hierarchy should have a different name though!)
(2) as people have pointed out, sometimes people delete unfamiliar files which turn out to be needed to run programs. There is no analogous danger of, say, throwing out the microwave because it is not food.


And there is no physical filing system that approximates the fact that if you access the file tree from within Word, you can't see the related PDF and Excel files helpfully stored in the same system folder.

The outline example is a completely different metaphor, which has no obvious relationship to the storing of physical objects. If you're going to compare the system to a file cabinet with file folders, you can't just throw in "oh, it's like an outline." What is? A filing cabinet? No, a filing cabinet is not like an outline. An outline is words on a piece of paper used to categorize ideas.

So, a large swath of the folks who work in offices, at many levels of education and intelligence, memorize one incredibly time-consuming way to do something and stick to it, because the underlying logic is incomprehensible and the software designers completely change the interfaces every few years anyway.
posted by desuetude at 5:58 PM on July 7, 2011


Yeah except I don't want a computer with a memory like my own. I'm fragile and forgetful. I want a computer to be better than me. It should never forget anything, unless I explicitly tell it to.

Explicit save is a relic from the bad old days when resources (physical, computational) were scarce.
posted by danny the boy at 5:59 PM on July 7, 2011 [3 favorites]


This points up the #1 reason some people make good teachers (and interface designers) -- they remember what they had to learn -- they remember that other people don't know those things -- they use little covert tests to check what people *do* know to know what "level" to bump them up to.

Everybody was new at everything at one time. In my experience the majority of people who *know a lot* about subjects *can't explain* them very well. It's not magic though, it's just a matter of finding out what people already know (to avoid being condescending) and of being patient and sharing a sense of humor.
posted by Twang at 6:11 PM on July 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


My 70-something in-laws called us last year in a panic, as my father-in-law had been working on a powerpoint document for hours only to find that the file had disappeared. There were many theories about what could have happened -- one theory put forward was that I had "broken" the computer from "typing too fast" the last time we visited -- but none that made any sense. He had been working on this powerpoint thing for at least six hours, he said, saving each time he finished a slide, and yet it was nowhere to be found.

After spending about an hour with them on speakerphone, we got onto ichat to do the shared screen thing and took control of his computer remotely. (Which freaked them out to no end.) We looked around, searched the hard drive -- and they were right. It wasn't anywhere to be found. The file was just.... gone.

My father-in-law said, "I don't understand! I saved after every single slide I did!" And something about the way he said it made my husband's eyes narrow.

"How? How -- exactly -- did you save it?" he asked. "Walk us through it."

"Well, every time I finished a slide, I would go to the menu. And then I would choose File, and then I would choose Save As..., and then a little box would pop up."

"And what did the box say?"

"It said something about did I want to save this file as something else, yes or no."

"So what did you click on?"

And my father-in-law said proudly, "I clicked on NO."

Because he didn't want to save the file as something else, he just wanted to save the file. So, for SIX HOURS he worked on his slides, and for SIX HOURS, he went through the process of clicking "save as" and then choosing "no." And then continuing on making more slides, and choosing save as, and choosing no. Until he closed the file, and chose no again when prompted, because he didn't want to save it as something else.

The next time we went to visit, my then 7-year-old took him aside and said, "Next time, Grandpa? If you want to save something and it asks you yes or no? You have to say YES!"
posted by mothershock at 6:13 PM on July 7, 2011 [3 favorites]


because the underlying logic is incomprehensible and the software designers completely change the interfaces every few years anyway

Not only that, but the places in which one views files look completely different. The save and open dialogue might look the same in one application and wholly different in another and then different again if you try to open the relevant folder in Explorer/Finder/Nautilus, let alone if a viewing preference is changed away from the default.

So while the familiar user will see the pattern and traverse the hierarchy, the unfamiliar user will see something completely new and not necessarily extrapolate or extend their working model.

This ties in to what John Siracusa has spoken about at length in his discussions of the idea of a spatial Finder, where there is a 1:1 map between representation and data in the model. Still complicated enough to require learning, but learning a consistent structure.

That said, one of the huge draws of the iPad, for people who both have difficulty with shifting models, but also the means to be able to justify acquiring one, is that there is usually none of that. You type your note and, when you come back to the app the next day, the note is just there. It's pleasant to see explicit saving and the existence of a filesystem treated as a flaw.
posted by frimble at 6:24 PM on July 7, 2011


If someone asks if you're a god if you want to save, you say YES!
posted by jeoc at 6:25 PM on July 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


as an aside, the anecdotes about grandparents got me wondering -- what will it be in 40 or 50 years that I will be baffled by and have my grandchildren take for granted?
posted by modernnomad at 7:59 PM on July 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


More generally, if you are optimizing for new users you are not optimizing for power users. Not all tools are as simple as a hammer. Complicated things are sometimes complicated to do. If you simplify the tool, you've probably put some tasks out of reach.--DU

I fundamentally disagree with this. Oh man, this reminds me of the long arguments I used to have with software engineers about this very topic. In the end I decided that they just didn't want to go through the work to make their software easy to use.

It takes a lot of work to make something easy to use. This is a large part of Apple's continuing success, and something their competitors always get wrong. But note that a Unix shell is available on a Mac.

In Joe's example, what if the first help menu had a button that said "getting started" that lead to a guide for beginners? That doesn't take away anything from power users.


I once helped a distant relative who had never used a computer to apply for a job at Target. It was the only way to apply for a job there. He was pretty fast at picking it up, considering. Watching him made me realize some basic things we take for granted, like the fact that the way to get from one entry to another on a typical form is not the return key, but the tab key. He ended up getting the job and was a well liked employee.
posted by eye of newt at 8:36 PM on July 7, 2011


This is a large part of Apple's continuing success

When I teach Mac classes to novices I teach them about the idea of "progressive disclosure" which is sort of how they operate. I explain that there are basic and more complex systems for interacting with their machines and that sometimes, not always, I'll explain a few different ways of doing things and tell them where they can dig for more information.

Explaining that Apple does this on purpose (and Microsoft too, at least moreso lately) to try to make the novice experience better is a more friendly starting point than "Why do they hide all the stuff that I want to use!" conclusion that many users arrive at on their own. You'd think it would be a weird complicated concept to people who don't even know what a default setting is, but people seem to like that there's a REASON this stuff is like this, even if they don't totally grok it.
posted by jessamyn at 8:51 PM on July 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


After a little more Q&A, I realized he was asking how to stamp an envelope, because he had never mailed a letter before.

Things I have googled: "what side envelope stamp go"

what will it be in 40 or 50 years that I will be baffled by and have my grandchildren take for granted?

I have the inverse of that-- something that I'm baffled by and most of the people around me take for granted-- and that's my own version of worrying about breaking everything. I constantly am worrying about turning keys, pressing on doors, or doing anything else too hard because I've frequently broken keys in doors and broken other stuff by applying too much physical pressure; I'm totally unable to gauge how much pressure is too much.
posted by NoraReed at 9:01 PM on July 7, 2011


It takes a lot of work to make something easy to use. This is a large part of Apple's continuing success, and something their competitors always get wrong. But note that a Unix shell is available on a Mac.

I don't think you're making the argument you intend to. The shell is included precisely because it is an interface that, while much less beginner-friendly, is vastly more powerful than the GUI.
posted by invitapriore at 9:23 PM on July 7, 2011


I meant to counter DU's argument that making things easy to use takes away power. The shell provides power uses with a lot of power. The easy-to-use GUI in no way takes away that power. Some people say that it has to be either/or. I say you can have both, and that there doesn't need to be a trade-off.
posted by eye of newt at 9:32 PM on July 7, 2011


Right, but the GUI and the shell are essentially two separate components in the whole package of OS X. I think what DU meant to say, and what I was saying, is that the likelihood of the same interface supporting all levels of fluency seems pretty low.
posted by invitapriore at 9:36 PM on July 7, 2011


However, there's no reason why a GUI and a shell can't co-exist on a system, especially if no key functions are locked away in one UI or another.
posted by ZeusHumms at 9:52 PM on July 7, 2011


No one mentioned voice recognition. At some point in the future this should be able to solve a lot of these problems for novices. I should just be able to say near the computer, "man, I could go for a pizza" and have it open a browser and search nearby for pizza shops. Or just ask me in a cool voice if I want a large pepperoni pie from domino's like last time. Or tell it "take a screenshot and send it to Bob". Someday ...
posted by freecellwizard at 10:22 PM on July 7, 2011


I try very hard not to get frustrated when helping relatives/friends with their computers, but sometimes "I can't believe you don't know this!" has got to be written all over my face. Even my parents, who are way more computer savvy than most of their peers, still can't remember how to do some things they have done hundreds of times, like sending me pictures via Skype.

I used to find it hard to really get their frustration with what seemed like easy things to me. That is, until I finally got a new computer at work, switching from Office 2003 to Office 2010. I can never remember being so frustrated with software before. I knew exactly what I wanted to do, but I just could not figure out how to do it. Even simple things required me to hunt for a long time to find the right option. I've gotten used to it now, but just thinking about that first week makes me cringe. Most importantly, it was a very humbling experience. I can't imagine feeling like that all the time when using a computer - no wonder people give up even trying! Kudos to those of you who teach computer-use to people - it can not be an easy task...
posted by gemmy at 10:37 PM on July 7, 2011


Right, but the GUI and the shell are essentially two separate components in the whole package of OS X. I think what DU meant to say, and what I was saying, is that the likelihood of the same interface supporting all levels of fluency seems pretty low.--invitapriore

Yes, but I guess this is where I disagree with what most people think. For example, I believe you can have a kindergarten level graphics drawing program that even Joe could figure out, and with a few well placed nested menu items, open an entire Photoshop level of power. I think most people would disagree with me, but that's where I stand.

I've seen this happen in industry, where a really simple, basic, intuitively easy program became popular, because everything else in the market was a bear to use, and so it added more and more powerful features, eventually surpassing the level of power and flexibility of the best software in the industry, all the while maintaining its original ease-of-use. (I'm in engineering, and the program in question is called Hyperlynx).

I really get upset with software engineers who say this cannot be done. Maybe they are not capable of it, but that doesn't mean it isn't possible.
posted by eye of newt at 10:45 PM on July 7, 2011 [2 favorites]


Best example ever of utterly illogical design: Click "Start" to Shutdown.
posted by webhund at 11:18 PM on July 7, 2011 [3 favorites]


The excellent Ottereroticist tells a story of working about 20 years ago on a software feature, with an older software engineer. She was told that the process "Was perfectly intuitive - if you thought about it long enough."
posted by Dreidl at 11:42 PM on July 7, 2011 [1 favorite]


The meaning of the word "intuitive" isn't intuitive.

An ideal UI would be adaptive to at least 3 different levels - neophyte, regular, and power user - (stuff that works well for a newbie would make a seasoned user absolutely furious) but no one is seriously looking at automatically adaptive UIs. Someone who knows nothing about computers isn't even on the designer's radar.

This story is great, and an interesting contrast to the Hole in the Wall research.
posted by and for no one at 12:04 AM on July 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


I was teaching a course of Mac basics to people who either had no computer experience at all, or had migrated from Windows.

The Windows people mostly knew what they could expect from the computer, and had to map functions they knew onto new buttons and menus. Frustrated, but they just had to push through.

One guy had plenty of Windows experience but had only ever used laptops — he had great difficulty using the mouse; So even though he knew perfectly well what a cursor was and what he wanted it to do, it took him a a couple of hours to comfortably lift-and-move and double-click. (The unisurface Apple mice don't help here)

Another person had never used a computer at all, and she already balked at the login screen after booting OSX; What unsettled her is that I told the class to choose the "guest account" and the word "account" is the same as used for "bank account" in Swedish as well ("konto") which got her worried that she could somehow be billed for something unspecific if she clicked it. This wasn't helped when every instance where we log in somewhere is called an "account," and where in iTunes you can get billed, while in Mail.app not so much.

I couldn't have foreseen half of the issues which cropped up, it was very instructive.

Looking at the experience of the Windows users, as an onlooker it's easy to confuse very complex memorized ways of doing things, with genuine understanding of the process. Some of the users wanted immediate access to contextual menus, for example to use "open with…" or somesuch, but are unaware of how to open a file from within an application, or which files can be doubleclicked.
posted by monocultured at 3:46 AM on July 8, 2011


monocultured: "What unsettled her is that I told the class to choose the "guest account" and the word "account" is the same as used for "bank account" in Swedish as well ("konto") which got her worried that she could somehow be billed for something unspecific if she clicked it. "

The origins of multiuser computers did involve billing individual accounts for time spent logged in. And as you point out, many other contexts do bill individual accounts. Its just another one of those things that made sense originally and now we're stuck with it. I suppose in English we have other terms that mean the same thing as computer account: "user", "login." Given the personalized nature of desktops these days, I'm surprised OSX hasn't just created one default user and auto logs them in, the way iOS/Linux/Android phones & tablets do.
posted by pwnguin at 7:55 AM on July 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


My mom has been using PCs on a daily basis for almost twenty years and still calls me sometimes to ask how to perform the most mind-bogglingly simple tasks. To be fair, I'm so used to using Macs that I'll overestimate how simple each task is, and then when I look at her Windows UI and try to get the same result I also ended up dumbfounded. I keep telling her she should invest in an Apple machine so that she can just prance happily along in her ignorance instead of struggling through confusing the quagmires of viruses and breakdowns that happen to a PC owned by a non-programmer.
posted by Mooseli at 8:02 AM on July 8, 2011


There is a similar [screenshot] program on Windows. Many people are unaware it exists, however, since it's buried in the accessories menu.

And it doesn't, AFAIK, exist before Vista


Oh thank god, I was on XP and spent a few minutes looking for it, thinking I was crazy.
posted by desjardins at 8:07 AM on July 8, 2011 [1 favorite]


No one mentioned voice recognition. At some point in the future this should be able to solve a lot of these problems for novices. I should just be able to say near the computer, "man, I could go for a pizza" and have it open a browser and search nearby for pizza shops. Or just ask me in a cool voice if I want a large pepperoni pie from domino's like last time. Or tell it "take a screenshot and send it to Bob". Someday ...

Natural language processing is damned difficult, and understanding instructions tends to rely on people hitting specific vocabulary. If you don't know how to take a screenshot, there's a pretty good chance you also don't know that it's called a screenshot. Or that a screenshot is even possible. Novice users are still not going to know what to tell the computer to do to get what they want.

It'll be like those text adventure games of old, where I'd spend 10 minutes trying to figure out what words actually made my character do anything, and then give up, because all I'd accomplished was to walk into a tree.
posted by jacquilynne at 8:46 AM on July 8, 2011 [3 favorites]


If you don't know how to take a screenshot, there's a pretty good chance you also don't know that it's called a screenshot. Or that a screenshot is even possible.

Screenshots are a great example of the utter disconnect between how computers work and how people expect them to work. Not only have I often heard novice users wish ardently for such a thing, I've heard people wonder if they should take a photo of their screen to send to IT in frustration over the lack of a mutually comprehensible language.

It doesn't occur to many novice users that people who do know what they're doing would need a snapshot of exactly what's on the screen badly enough for it to be integrated into the very core functionality of the computer.
posted by desuetude at 2:39 PM on July 8, 2011


Neat. I've been thinking about a linux distro specifically tailored to first time users. Failing the arcane key combination for terminal at boot time it starts to asess cognition and capabilities (slyly, in a Derren Brown way); like some piece of ancient Sith technology it adapts to cognitive and motor skills deploying assistive tech and from the ground-up training as needed (I imagine it's guidance system being persistent like Wheatley from Portal 2, but with an agreeable and pleasant voice like Stephen Fry's).
posted by yoHighness at 6:22 PM on July 8, 2011


An ideal UI would be adaptive to at least 3 different levels - neophyte, regular, and power user

I used elm (an email client) in 1991 on a unix system and it had this. The commands were different based on your user level, which was something you could set. Higher user levels had access to more sophisticated functions.

I may be misremembering or hallucinating this, but I think the highest user level was undocumented, you had to manually edit the .elmrc to do it, and you had to know it was possible to set the userlevel= higher than three. Which even if it isn't true, I think is cool.
posted by marble at 6:27 PM on July 8, 2011


I still use elm and I'm pretty sure that's the way it goes.
posted by jessamyn at 6:43 PM on July 8, 2011


I was about to get all judgmental, but then I realized that I'm only 26 and I'm already getting left behind technologically speaking. I've only picked up the iPhone and Blackberry a couple times each, but they don't make intuitive sense to me. Each experience I've had with them has been highly frustrating, and I have no inclination to find one to try again.

I do have an android and after a minor hiccup getting started (the first time I turned it on, I tried to unlock it by tapping rather than sliding, couldn't get it to unlock, thought it was broken), I picked it up very quickly. This is in contrast to most people I know, who don't like android at all. I don't think it's a coincidence that I'm a software engineer.
posted by mantecol at 9:28 PM on July 8, 2011


Metafilter: It's like Stargate, but for ordering pizza.

I win!
posted by secretseasons at 9:38 PM on July 13, 2011


« Older Bill Gates on energy...  |  So, I have come to take back t... Newer »


This thread has been archived and is closed to new comments