Something Missing

Computer software companies don’t sufficiently consider their products and developments from the point of view of the average user

Man Scratching HeadThis is something that I’ve contended for a long time, and I’ve often tried to reassure my computer support clients that it’s not their fault that they are struggling with programs that are ill-designed in the way that the user interacts with them.

Here’s an example in Windows 10. You enter “tablet mode” by clicking on the “notification tile” in the system tray (the area at the bottom righthand corner of the screen) and then clicking on the “Tablet mode” tile . Having got into tablet mode, how on earth do you get back to desktop mode? There is no tile anywhere that says “desktop mode” and the tile that said “tablet mode” still says “tablet mode”. In fact, you tap or click on the “tablet mode” tile again. Huh? How do arrive at that? In my case, by trial and error.

Tablet Mode Tile
The wording on the tile doesn’t change whether you are in Tablet mode or Desktop mode

This is just plain stupid. The “tile” looks exactly the same as it did before entering tablet mode. If they are going to use the same “tile” to “toggle” between desktop mode and tablet mode then why not label the tile with something meaningful instead of something that is actively misleading? And while I’m whingeing on about this, why on earth did they put the control for switching between these modes inside a part of the screen accessed by clicking on an icon labelled “notifications”? Since when did switching between modes have anything to do with “notifications”?

Here’s another example. This time from Apple. When I dutifully began the upgrade of IOS on my iPhone to version 9.3, I made the mistake of looking away for a minute or two. When I came back it said the upgrade had failed. This is the type of thing that seriously discombobulates “normal” users and deters them from doing things like upgrading operating systems. Anyway, I started it again and kept my eye on it this time. At one point it asked for my passcode before continuing. I put it in and everything completed normally. Clearly, the previous “failure” was caused by nothing more serious than my missing a request to put in my passcode. I can not believe that it would not be possible for the “failure notice” to have said something like “Sorry, but you didn’t enter your passcode when requested. Start the update again and enter your passcode when requested”.

Either they don’t do enough testing of their products on “ordinary users” or they don’t take enough notice of the results. I suspect that the clever people have spent all their time and effort getting the underlying programming to work and then they move on to something else. Everybody involved has probably spent so long using this piece of programming, with its particular user interface, that they just don’t realise that it doesn’t actually make much sense to anyone looking at it for the first time (or the nth time, come to think of it).

Notifications Icon
Why is the choice of Tablet mode or Desktop mode revealed by clicking on the Notifications icon?
It’s OK for the people who work in this technology. We have learned to push and press and prod to see what happens, because we know that this is how we learn all about it. We have an idea about the limits of any damage that can be caused and how to make sure we don’t risk anything important when playing with new stuff. But the ordinary, average, user of this stuff (at least as far as my own computer support clients are concerned) never gets to this stage of playing with the technology and doesn’t want to – and shouldn’t have to. The ordinary, average, user doesn’t want to risk “breaking” something and being worse off than they were before they touched it. S/he doesn’t want to risk suddenly finding that their emails are no longer accessible, or their music or photos have just disappeared (for ever?). This must surely spoil their experience of using the technology in the same kind of way that a 400 mile car journey is going to be spoiled and doom-laden if you fear that the engine is going to die if you change the radio station.

Puzzled Computer UserIn the above case of the “tablet mode”, it happened to me when I was with a client. Since I never use tablet mode on a Windows computer, I didn’t immediately know how to get back to desktop mode. I was slightly embarassed by this, but the client said that she was pleased to see that this kind of thing can happen to an “expert” and that it isn’t necessary to panic when such things happen.

This kind of problem with the user interface is a big shame and a wasted opportunity. Any technology company that could significantly improve in this regard could gain massive amounts of market share by attracting ordinary average human beings who know they need to use this technology but who constantly experience a low level fear of something going wrong that they don’t know how to interpret or fix.

On the other hand, if they did do a better job then maybe my clients would need me less. Hmm.