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Mon, Jun. 27th, 2005, 11:39 pm
Computer Interfaces I

(First in a series inspired by experiences in amateur tech support and the endless stream of articles yapping about how the time for desktop Linux is either never or next year.)

I'm sure you've heard it. It might even have been you. "Computers are hard to use." By that, you (or someone you know) probably meant "I don't know how to use a computer." The next line goes something like...

Why can't my computer be as easy to use as my telephone?



And, to answer that question, we visit Conrad the Caveman. You see, Conrad hasn't been keeping up with the march of technology for quite a while. He's been living in a cave. But, lately, he heard about this miraculous communications device that would allow him to speak to and hear the voice of almost anyone else on the planet. This device sure beat the old, worn out drums, so, he figured he would get one. Conrad got all dressed up and went to his local electronics store, and came home with a brand spanking new telephone. Actually, it was the cheapest one he could find - the economy just isn't supporting cavemen the way it used to. He excitedly tore it out of its cardboard box. Then, he threw some funky foam insulation all over his cave. Then, he ripped through more layers of plastic wrap before finding the new, cheap, plastic phone that was ubiquitous in nearly everyone's home. It came in two big plastic parts, one of them had numbers on it, and the other one kind of looked like a misshapen banana. There was also this long wire that had two little plastic doohickies at the end, and a spiralled wire that had two smaller plastic doohickies.

What to do now? Aha! The telephone also came with this helpful piece of paper written in some variant of Korean syntax with English lettering, and barely legible diagrams. So, Conrad stares at the diagrams for a few moments, and tries to put the little plastic doohickie on the long wire into one of the holes, and it doesn't fit. There's another hole. He tentatively pushes it in, and hears a "snap." Now, it won't come out. Conrad gets a worried look on his face -- "Did I break it?" -- but, then, he realizes that the little plastic doohickie *is* a snap. With only 3 more little holes left, it looks like the spiral wire fits into one hole on the thing with the numbers, and one hole on the crescent shaped thing. *snap*...*snap*... then, the other wire goes... oh... into that thing that Ma Bell installed in the house back in the Dark Ages. The little diagram kind of looks like the crescent-shaped thing, called a "reciever," [sic] is supposed to rest on a set of bars on the part with the numbers. It works ... and, it also stops that awful noise the thing was making.

Conrad looks happily at his new telephone, eager to call the his friend Bill, who left the caves about 10 years ago for bigger and better things. The little white pamphelet doesn't say anything about how to do that. The next few pages are filled with warnings telling him not to use the telephone near water, during an electrical storm, during the wrong phase of the moon, etc. But, Conrad's a smart guy, and, he's adventurous. He picks the receiver off the "hook" and the thing starts making noise again. He vaguely remembers someone talking into the thing, and this is a talking device, after all, so, he faces the receiver towards his mouth, and, very clearly, very carefully, enunciates the word "Bill." The telephone continues to make that noise. Dejected, Conrad places the receiver back in its holder, and the noise stops.

Then, Bill notices something else. There are letters on top of those numbers. Maybe if he types in "BILL", he'll be able to speak to Bill. Logical, right? So, Conrad presses 2-4-5-5, making sure not to get a letter wrong. The noise stopped. He tries to talk. "Hello" -- Conrad learned that was the customary greeting when using the telephone. But, there was nobody on the other end. He waits a few seconds, then a new sound comes from the receiver. *ring* *ring* Then, a voice is speaking -- but it's not Bill. It's some deep voiced man he doesn't know... "Please hang up." Then, an even more annoying sound came on than he had ever heard before. He immediately, almost instictively crashed the receiver down on the hook to end the noise.

What is poor Conrad the Caveman to do? How will he every find out about dial tones, telephone numbers, telephone directories, etc. Maybe he'll just have to talk to Gideon the Geek down the street. They say he knows a lot about telephones.

Hey! Did you notice that Conrad didn't even have to order service from the phone company.

What does this all have to do with why computers are so hard to use? You see, Conrad isn't stupid. He's perfectly capable of both concrete and abstract thought. Telephones are not "intuitive." You, and Conrad, both use telephones every day without even realizing that the machine is operating on its own (or it's designers') terms... not yours. To be continued.

(Just in case you think everything Conrad went through is blatently obvious, check this out).

Tue, Jun. 28th, 2005 02:32 pm (UTC)
muchabstracted

Oooh, I liked the link. I haven't thought about phone etiquette in that much detail since... ever.

My sympathies to Conrad on the annoying sound. I can't stand the "Please hang up" tone.

Wed, Jun. 29th, 2005 09:47 pm (UTC)
donovanstitch

That brochure is fantastic! Your overall point is wittily presented, but good luck scaling back support and ease-of-use expectations, especially in this country. We live in a nation of cranky, high-maintenance, instant-gratification seekers with sort attention spans.

Thu, Jun. 30th, 2005 08:33 pm (UTC)
elfsdh

I'm not ready to blame it on the educational system or Sesame Street. Some people who have major issues working with a computer are perfectly capable of paying attention for long periods of time, thinking over problems, etc. I think the problem is in the way people approach the machines. Hopefully, I'll be able to illustrate my point(s) in the later parts of this series.

Fri, Jul. 1st, 2005 01:04 pm (UTC)
donovanstitch

Okay, looking forward. If you develop this thesis sufficiently, you could publish it for a mass audience and go on talk shows if you're so inclined.

Fri, Jul. 1st, 2005 04:05 pm (UTC)
elfsdh

LOL :-D

I don't think I'll be able to *prove* it... I can't do the polling/statistical analysis that would be required to even try. I hope to illustrate my point and use the comment page to see who agrees or disagrees with it (highly unscientific self-selected polling from a nonrepresentative sample).