Yes, it’s true there are many people out there who have been using computers at work and at home for more than 10-years, who have no clue what they are doing. I, also, believe that it’s a myth that the younger set are born knowing how to use computers much better than their parents or grandparents. I think that both are ignorant, with the older generations being so clueless that they have no idea that their children and grandchildren are clueless too.
There is a sweet spot for users who truly understand their PCs. These users are those that went through the DOS days and have built their own computers. These folks have a fundamental understanding that Windows, and other interfaces like it, have automated the line commands we used to give in DOS and UNIX (and whatever pet OS folks like to use). They also have a good understanding of PC hardware and the firmware and software glue that connects everything together into a system.
I’ve been dealing with the PC frustrations of family and family friends lately and when I try to troubleshoot with them over the phone or over the Internet, I feel like we are speaking completely different languages. I am speaking “technical” and they are speaking “symptoms.” Here are some of the things I hear:
- It’s broken
- There’s no sound coming out of it
- Where are the buttons I likes on AOL
- Who is this Julio who keeps trying to chat with me?
- My PC running really slow
- Help! These pop-ups with porn have taken over my PC
- It won’t go into Windows
- How can I tell my if PC has crashed?
PCs are highly integrated systems and most people don’t know where the Internet, software applications, OS, Hardware, firmware, … etc, end, begin, and interface. To add upon this, the symptoms PCs may present could be caused by many problems and many times are integration issues caused by a confluence of components. A great deal of resentment grew up in me as more and more of my friends and family found out that I knew a little something about PCs. I felt that if I took the time to get to know computers, then somewhere along the way they should have osmosed half as much. Recently, though, it occurred to me that non-technical people should not have to understand the inner workings of their PC to use them and to do simple repairs. Rather, it is the responsibility of those of us who can to make the PC accessible to everyone.
Let’s leave aside the matter of hardware and integration and let’s just dwell upon OS wrappers like Windows. Recently, I gave a close family friend one of our old laptops. We could no longer use it because it could not handle the hi-def content we download and watch. However, for our family friend, this PC has more than enough power to do the things she wants to do like e-mail, surf the web, watch YouTube, and watch DVDs. Anyhow, she’s having trouble using the PC due to unfamiliarity. At first this seemed totally ridiculous to me. Despite its many face lifts, Windows is Windows and she has been using Windows at work and at home for at least 10 – 15-years. What gives? Well, what gave is that my family friend, let’s call her “May” for the sake of simplicity, has been using AOL exclusively. On her old system, when she turns her computer on, the AOL login interface is the first thing that comes up. She logs in and gets her e-mail. This is also the interface she uses to browse the Internet. Furthermore, since e-mail is done with a word processing interface, she was using this like she would use a program like Word. As a result, AOL was her PC experience and for her Windows never really existed. Until I got this, I was extremely frustrated with her questions about where the cut and paste buttons are like she had in AOL. So now what? She no longer has the AOL interface installed on her computer, and for her own sake, I refuse to put in on. In the meantime, poor May in lost in the sea of Windows XP where browser, media player, add-ons, drivers, updates, anti-virus, and, on and on are all new and incomprehensible.
What I’ve learned from my experiences with May and others is that people are creatures of habit and there are only a few who continually seek new experiences to relieve boredom and to satisfy curiosity. So how do we progress these folks forward? How do we create systems that look familiar to most user and fosters curiosity without allowing the user to break the system or get themselves to a “place” they don’t know how to get out of? As I think about the PC and emerging handheld technologies, I consider these matters. Why are some handhelds easier to use than a PC? As the power of handhelds approach that of PCs, will they lose their simplicity? Can handhelds and PCs converge into one familiar user experience that is accessible to most people? I have no doubt that they can. So then why haven’t they? And why are PCs and electronics, in general, so hard to use. The answer is quite simple: because engineers and scientists design most user interfaces. People who understand people should design human interfaces. That is not to say that engineers and scientists cannot be taught to design human interface, because they can. It’s a matter of allowing those that want to and who understand people, to do so.