Before we jump into today’s topic, allow me to introduce a very bright man I have the pleasure to correspond with on a regular basis. He is a senior global marketing professor at one of Louisiana’s top universities in New Orleans.
Although he is no computer expert, he fully understands the impact computers have in his field and always stays on top of the latest innovations to understand what can and cannot be done, how, and by whom. Sure, we don’t discuss the benefits of HFS+ over HFS but, for a person who did not learn to use computers before the age at which others consider retiring, I am always surprised by the extent of his knowledge and his good understanding of what’s going on.
There was just one hiccup… His personal experience as a computer user wasn’t extremely enjoyable. Since we meet on a regular basis, I had a chance to see his university-provided PCs go all the way from Windows 2000 to XP Pro, with all the small roadblocks that PC users are accustomed to : he was infected by viruses at least 5 times, had his hard drive entirely wiped by one twice, had to re-install Windows quite a few times and had to have someone work on the network for days every time he upgraded his installation before performance was satisfying. For the record, just let me say that he used an updated anti-virus from a trusted brand, that all this happened behind the university’s firewall and own anti-virus hardware and that the computer was remotely managed by the IT department, right next door…
So we discussed the idea of switching to the Mac and, a few weeks later, he brought home a Titanium PowerBook with Mac OS X v. 10.2 and an AirPort base station. In a few days, he was actively using Sherlock for his research, had switched to wireless computing and printing, had his own calendars and contacts maintained by iSync, used his iDisk as a bridge between home, work and the foreign countries in which he gives conferences and, last time we met, he was considering adding an iPod to his installation as well as opening a class website on his .Mac account… Of course, we had a few issues to solve like the cable guy telling him that Macs weren’t compatible with the Internet in New Orleans (LOL !) but nothing that a quick mail couldn’t solve — remember that, this time, he was on his own.
In other words, the switch was a success and, during our last informal meeting, we began talking about why he felt more at ease on the Mac and what he, as a newbie, would like to see improved with computers in general.
He suggested that computers should engage in a dialog with the user, try to understand what he likes and wants to do.
Wanna listen to some music right after unpacking your computer ? On goes an animated tutorial about music capabilities and one button to push to to to the iTunes music store or the built-in radio tuner : instant gratification or, in other words, a feel-good experience for the user. Wanna learn more about the internet ? On goes a movie to present the basics, while Mail and Safari launch.
Since even the keyboard and mouse are sometimes intimidating for newcomers, we thought of using Apple’s Speech recognition technology too and mix it with tutorials like the ones used on .Mac. Just tell your computer what he wants to do and he will immediately show you how to do it.
Even though we only talked about installation, I soon realized that computer interfaces indeed lack the power to make suggestions. If your printer doesn’t work, what about giving you basic troubleshooting steps — and not in the help, one click away at most — or suggest places to go to to get some ?
Those of you who use Macs or develop for it know that Apple is already halfway there : the setup assistant that starts up automatically when you fire your Mac up for the first time is quite close from what we discussed, the icons placed in the Dock by default are pointers to what you can do ( Apple puts iLife, Safari, QuickTime and a few others in there automatically, so you can find easily what you want to explore first ) and, the error messages guidelines provided to the developers stress the importance of being clear, making suggestions and having well-worded buttons — not “Printing queue failed [OK], [Cancel]”…
I know it does not sound very impressive at first sight : a beefed up assistant, built-in tutorials… Sure, it’s no 3D interface but imagine the difference it could make for users who do not necessarily understand the in and out of their machines. It’s not yet another wizard but an interface that tries to understand what your needs are and to adapt itself according to them.
Some Windows or some Linux interfaces, for example, are full of wizards that get in your way instead of helping and this is mainly because they do not work with the user, because they try to replace the interface instead of introducing it to him. Apple does not believe in wizards : they believe in carefully designed assistants that give you a hand when you request it and introduce the real interface for you so you know what happens and how to change it later if you want.
Until next time, dear Mac users, enjoy thinking different !
And you, what do you think about interfaces ?