Beware – technology can be scary

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This article from the Age’s IT pages got the blood boiling here at rationalbrain, on two counts.

Fristly, it’s the disappointing and perhaps lazy journalism from this otherwise fine paper. Not content with filling their ‘lifestyle’ pages with pop-psychology and pseudo-science, the the ‘IT-Pro’ section is now just being filled with a kind of prepared statement, sourced from some company wanting to get into the paper for PR purposes.

Secondly, we are pushed some nonsense about how people should be able to use computers without having to learn anything.

The formula for getting your free PR is as follows:

  1. Find an expert in your area of business, who has preferably just released a book in that area.
  2. Quote them, and put their picture in an article.
  3. In the second half of the article, quote yourself and concur with the expert. Maybe even support with another quote from somewhere.
  4. For good effect, go on to espouse your business philosophy.
  5. Submit the article to a content-starved outlet.

Quite simple really. Might give it a try.

Mind you, the content can sometimes be informative, though this article isn’t in that category. It’s basically telling us that users prefer more intuitive interfaces to computers. Duh! We also learn that users in websites report being lost, disappointed and overwhelmed. Oh dear.

We have such gems as:

The vast majority of users, don’t know as much, don’t care as much either, and this is why they don’t learn as much, because to the normal person getting on with their life, that’s more important than spending hours learning about computer features.

Indeed. Why should I learn how to use my tools? They should do it all for me shouldn’t they? Imagine applying the same philosophy to, oh, a power saw or nail gun. No, it’s just unreasonable to expect users to know or care about their tools. How about this (see Step 3 of my menu above):

Lisa Wade, director at Australia’s Stamford Interactive design consultancy, concurs. She said people feel disappointed when things take too long online. Not being able to get what they want because they don’t know how to use drop-down menus, navigating complicated sites, and losing your place on a site are common frustrations.

For god’s sake. Learn how to use a drop-down menu. It’s not rocket surgery.

Basically anything that is hidden is something that most users won’t do. Right-clicking is one example. Unless you remember that it’s there, you won’t know.

Really? This is your killer example? Let’s transfer this to driving a car. It’s not entirely obvious that the key goes into the ignition, and then you have to turn it. A hidden, two-step process that no driver should be faced with in this day and age.

And just to really screw with rationalbrain, there’s this gem:

This is where Apple excels. Because they think about it from the users’ point of view – they don’t always get it right, but they get it right more often than most. What they try to do is make things as obviously as possible.”

What? As a life-long computer enthusiast and user, and considering myself fairly adept at software development (including website development), occasionally trying to use a Mac is something I find super-frustrating. They cannot possibly claim any moral high ground on this one. It’s a simple case of – no matter what the tool, you need some basics. One commenter to the article made a similar point:

If Apple was so in tune with customers’ wishes, they would have strangled the market long ago. Hasn’t happened. Price always trumps. Anyone who thinks MAC OSX is intuitive or somehow user friendly is either a born masochist or a fanboy of Apple. Good grief! Apple doesn’t even use the right click of the mouse. I’ll bet no PC user who tries using a Mac first time works out how to do this the first day without looking it up.

It is simply untrue that Mac users work faster and better. They just don’t compare things accurately since they are already MAC users and tend to believe that what they learnt first is easier.

I’m reminded of a scene in one of the Star Trek movies – the terrible one with the whales – in which the crew travel back in time, and the Engineer (yes, I capitalised it, so sue me) Scotty needs to do some calculations. He is presented with a 90’s computer (probably a Mac), and handed the mouse. He looks at it, puts it up to his mouth, and says ‘Computer, acknowledge‘. See? Even Scotty is confused by Apple. (You can see the clip here. It’s in German, but you get the idea).

Yes, by all means, make websites and computer stuff as intuitive as possible – as with any product, but it’s simply unreasonable to expect we should be able to do everything without some learning curve. Where would the fun be in that.

And by the way, before this article, you didn’t know how to get something published in IT Pro. Now, with some simple instructions, you’re good to go!

Learning rocks.

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5 thoughts on “Beware – technology can be scary

    luxinvestor said:
    December 7, 2011 at 2:52 pm

    Do you have the other half of this amulet? You sir, are speaking my language. I too am a life long geek. Taking a little time to learn how to use and care for my tools has saved me thousands of dollars in IT help and countless hours of frustration by knowing what to do when the machine goes wonky. (Thank you forums.) If we are to believe that “Sharticle”, the bulk of computer users sound like petulant, lazy, impatient, children when it’s really the minority in a niche market.

      rationalbrain said:
      December 7, 2011 at 3:21 pm

      Amulet. Hehehe.
      Good to hear testimony from the faithful!
      BTW, what is the ‘sh’ in ‘sharticle’ – shit? sham? shoddy?

        luxinvestor said:
        December 7, 2011 at 3:31 pm

        You nailed it out of the gate. Shit + article lacking in research or any tether to reality = Sharticle. 🙂

        rationalbrain said:
        December 7, 2011 at 3:48 pm

        Cool! Any more sharticles come your way, pass them on, or write them up yourself and I’ll post here.

    ɹǝɯɐןq (@blamer) said:
    December 7, 2011 at 6:49 pm

    Great post. The dovetailing of two pet peevs of mine.

    1. The general public seem to underestimate the extent to which popular old media outlets are unable to resist selling their credibility down the river.

    At this point they’re so good at spin why wouldn’t they forego journalistic integrity and expand into the much more profittable business of infotainment?

    2. When it comes to to the usability of technology, computer users see software as a categorically different from a physical tool that was built to do something obvious.

    Perhaps this distinction shouldn’t be so surprising to the tech savvy. Learning to use the gadget I’m using now (as distinct from say a portable dvd player) really has to be thought of as endless because I’m using the thing to access information in an ever-increasing variety of forms.

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