Think you know what users find intuitive? Try buying your computer-novice parent a computer!

A couple of years ago I bought my senior-citizen mother a computer so she could join her friends and acquaintances who were, as she puts it, “in the loop”. Now, she learns about latest goings on among her friends and chuch community through e-mail, browses the Web, and so forth.

My mother’s professional career was equal parts nursery school director and office-based professional, but she had never used a computer before this. I rightly expected to fill the role of help desk, so I chose for her an Apple laptop similar to the one I use at home. It is worth noting that this was not an “anti-Windows” decision as much as it was an “anti-Windows-viruses-and-malware-when-you-don’t-have-an-IT-department-to-deal-with-those-problems” decision. As it is, the Mac does things I have to explain as, “That’s just the way things are with computers.” I currently run a Mac and a Vista machine side-by-side, and the Vista machine definitely has more of these moments than the Mac, sad to say.

I expect to add posts on this topic recalling past events and chronicling those that happing down the road, but it has been a real education for me on two fronts. First, having first used a computer over thirty years ago, my memory of what it means to know absolutely nothing at all was pretty distant. Questions about what I mean when I say “drag the mouse” persist to this day, and we never use the word “file”. Second, so much of what seems intuitive and innovative about both the Macintosh and Windows platforms (I’ve used Windows almost exclusively in my professional life) is actually built around a basic set of knowledge and assumptions.

One such assumption that has been repeatedly challenged is the value of icons. Sure, having a small graphic that consumes minimal screen real estate and also provides useful information is something I find very valuable, but trying to get that information through a phone connection to someone who doesn’t know much about computers is very challenging. The best example is the network status icon on the Mac – it consists of 4 quarter circles, described as either a “rainbow” or “sound waves”. The quarter circles can be black or grey, and you could have just a few black indicating less than full signal strength. Useful, to be sure, but trying to find out what it is telling someone on the phone who may not be looking at the right thing is pretty time consuming.

The lesson from this particular icon experience is this: a text-based diagnostic that can be accessed with a single keystroke would be very useful in this situation. I’m thinking in terms of a dashboard widget (accessible by pressing F12, not some weird multi-key finger acrobatics) that would list a bunch of things under headings, all in text. Picture this – “So, Mom, press F12 and tell me what it says under “Network”. Ideally it would say something like “can access internet and one local printer, e-mail connection has failed three times in the last 24 hours”. But, that is a project for another day.

Anyway, more to come in future posts.


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The contents of this blog represent the personal opinions and intellectual property of Larry Fulton, and not those of past or present employers.

Contents copyright (c) 2009 Lawrence B. Fulton


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