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Computers Are Magic

This morning I was simultaneously reading this article about the new Windows 8 interface and helping my brother with github. Had a sudden epiphany and point of empathy with technologically illiterate people.

It basically boils down to: For the computer illiterate, Computers Really Are Magic

Continue reading and I’ll explain what I mean.

The Windows 8 article sort of loosely lays out the case for and against hinting to users. For example, the new Windows UI apparently removed the Start button. The argument is that people don’t need it all the time, so it shouldn’t be omnipresent. Keeping it there is only a hint of what they possibly might do.

Hints such as this are seen as useful because no interface is inherently knowable at the start — people have to learn them. Example: Windows used to have a tutorial how to use a mouse because mice aren’t “intuitive”. Including such a tutorial would be absurd at this stage, and so the case is made likewise that the Start button is a little anachronistic.

Essentially this is a roundabout argument that the best one can hope for is “learnability”, not “intuitive”. But I wonder at the assumption of learnability in the first place. My experience in tech support is that a good portion of people don’t learn how their actions translate to behavior on a compter.

There are users who lack something crucial that allows them to learn an interface at all. A significant population of users has only learned by rote that one opens a document by clicking on File, then Open; but presented with an unfamiliar program would never think to click on File then Open in order to open a file. I have watched users go to Word in order to open a file dialog box to double-click on a PSD icon which then opens Photoshop.

These users don’t see actions as repeatable. Cause and effect is broken. To them, it’s all “magic”.

There’s a character in the old Dragonlance fantasy books named Raistlin. Raistlin is a wizard. He studies magic. He has a brother Caramon who’s all brawn and not a lot of understanding. We the reader see Raistlin from Caramon’s perspective in terms of magic — it’s a lot of mysterious stuff that causes shit to go down. We don’t know how or why, we just know that Raistlin does something and then things catch fire or disappear.

But there’s a particular part in one of the books where we see a hint of Raistlin’s training and a hint of what he actually does. He’s warping energy or picking a particular color of power or God knows what else. (It’s been a few years since I read the books so I don’t actually remember the details.) Suffice it to say there’s a pattern to it. Raistlin’s magic isn’t easy thing, to be sure, but it’s controllable and there’s an order to controlling it. It’s repeatable.

But we only get a glimpse of that. As far as we and Caramon can tell, it must be hard and complicated, because, gosh, I don’t understand ANY of what just happend. You must need to be really smart to do it. But Raistlin knows how the sausage is made. He knows it’s just magic, no big deal.


Your sysadmin

So this is a situation that actually happened the other day: My wife was on the phone with a lady at her workplace. I’ll call her Susan. My wife wanted Susan to unplug one printer and plug in another. The particular printer model has two holes in the back: one for power and one for network. The two plugs are physically different.

My wife could not convince Susan to pull out two plugs and put the plugs in another device. She wouldn’t even try looking at it — she wanted to wait for someone more savvy to do it.

As far as Susan was concerned, my wife was saying, “It’s super easy, just chant this incantation and wave your hands this way and it will work”. For Susaan, doing anything with computer technology feels exactly the way we feel about Raistlin’s magic. We don’t really know how it works, just that stuff happens sometimes, and it must be really hard to do and you must need to be really smart to know how to do it. Also, sometimes things catch fire.

Of course Susan isn’t going to swap out that printer. She’s not going to cast some strange spell no matter how nice my wife is.

This seems kind of seems bleak to me. A lot of people just aren’t going to get technology, no matter how much you try to give them clues or show them things. Two plugs of different shapes and color is about as simple as you can get, yet we still have a user unwilling and afraid to touch them.

Nerds like to get worked up about the superiority of their choice over the competition, their interface design, their self-composed metrics, etc. But I think their arguments are almost worthless because nerds are fundamentally incapable of seeing things from a normal user’s point of view. We shouldn’t have to think hard or even discuss whether or not to put a start button on the screen.

As a nerd myself and to be fair, I can say that it is hard to look at a computer and not assume that I can figure out how it works. But that’s the mindset I’m talking about. It’s rare for me to look at software and not think, “I did it this way in this other program, I should try that here”. Yet a lot of people operate this way, daily.

I need to ponder this, but this epiphany is going to inform my interface designs. But right now it tells me that I should find a way to work on fear-reduction and learnability rather than “intuitive”. And it gives me a model to better see things outside of my own head.

I guess it gives me a goal: not more intuitive — only less-magical.

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