Thursday, April 5, 2007

The Intuitive Interface Myth: Why computers aren't any easier to use than they used to be

Back in the early Post-Columbrian era I taught computer classes, hundreds of them. Four hours each, these classes covered: Computer Basics, Word Processing, Spreadsheets, and Operating System. After taking those classes you would know how to turn on a computer, create/save/print a document or spreadsheet, and make a backup copy of your work on removable media. You would also know the difference between memory and storage, RAM and ROM, and be able to answer qustions like "where does my work go wen the power goes out?"

Just 16 hours or two work days. Done and dusted. Or spend another four hours with me (or one of the dozen or so other trainers at our company) and you could build your own databases.

All of this without any "easy-to-use, intuitive graphical user interface." No hard-to-decipher icons, no tricky point-and-click devices, just simple taps on clearly labeled keys. Now, more than two decades later, a frightening number of office workers and home users have less clue about how to do their work and operate their computers than graduates of those archaic classes.

Why? The answer is going to be in some of my next postings. Meanwhile, consider this test. How easy and intuitive is A versus E? Twenty years ago option E was readily available and clearly labeled on the screen. Todays' screens are bigger, and have a lot more than two colors, but are applications any easier to use? I would argue No. Especially when if you want to talk about web apps, where almost every site has a different user interface (links are underlined, not underlined, underlined only on hover, colored differently, appear only when the arrow is over them, an icon not text, text not an icon, etc, etc).

I would hazard a guess that less than half of all people who use computers in their work today have received anything more than 4 hours of training on how to operate a computer. And that's a hazard, and accident waiting to happen, probably already happening if you dug a little deeper into the constant stream of security breaches being reported.

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