Just Press F1!

I'm increasingly seeing how big the disconnect is between people who use computers occasionally just because they need to do stuff on the Internet, and those of us who live and breathe computing. And we're not talking stupid people here; I see it most weeks with friends and acquaintances that are fully capable of managing almost any other technological domestic device.

It's both interesting and worrying. Interesting because I'm part of a group within Microsoft working on a project that will help to discover more quickly and more accurately the issues people typically face when using our products. While here in p&p we are tilted towards the needs of developers, software designers, and system admins, I'm interested to learn how you can make operating systems and user-oriented software easier for home users to grasp. After all, we spend inordinate amounts of time and effort making them intuitive, and providing pop-up help pages and tips.

And it's worrying because, for most of the non-technical population, having to spend time learning how to use technology is a thing of the past. We want instant gratification. Few technological devices come with proper manuals these days anyway (it's all on a CD that gets lost within minutes of opening the box), and instead these devices have intuitive UIs that mean you don't need to resort to the help file. Although I have to admit that some do seem to make common tasks difficult - our new kitchen oven has so many knobs and buttons, and different cooking settings, that my wife keeps the instruction book handy just to decipher the strange symbols.

Coming back to computers, though, this week I encountered a perfect illustration of the issue. Some friends called round, complete with laptop and a list of questions, seeking my help. They could no longer print anything because the Print button and menu bar had disappeared from their web browser. Plus, the desktop shortcut that opened their email now just showed Google search engine. And they were concerned that they'd lose all of their precious photos if the computer broke down or was lost because the backup software couldn't find them.

It took only a cursory examination to discover that Internet Explorer seemed to have disappeared, and now all their web shortcuts had a Chrome icon - which I assumed was down to the recent Adobe Flash upgrade (see Not So Shiny). Rather than uninstalling Chrome I just fired up Internet Explorer and used the Programs tab in the Internet Options dialog to make IE the default browser again. This meant that they now had a Print button on the toolbar, though I still had to mess about resetting the Home page and the link to Hotmail.

But they still couldn't figure out how to get the menu bar to appear in the browser. They never realized that you could click the little down arrow next to the Print button to see more printing options, and always did that before using the File option on the menu bar. I explained that they just had to press the Alt key to see the menu bar; but, other than mumbling something about extra room for the content of the page, I couldn't answer the subsequent question "Why?" So I reset the menu bar to be there all the time. Yet all of these operations are explained in the help file - if only I could persuade them to press the F1 key!

And then we got to the question of backing up their photos. Some while ago I'd given them an old USB thumb drive and copied their photos onto it. But now, every time you plug it in, the computer just displays a dialog saying "No more pictures found to import". It turns out that, when they bought a new printer a while ago, another friend had installed it - along with all of the accessory programs that came with it.

One of these programs was a utility that scanned for photos and displayed them for printing, and this program had helpfully set the autoplay option for USB thumb drives to run itself. Obviously it had imported all the photos from the thumb drive the first time it ran, and so there were no new ones. They thought the program was saving the photos onto the thumb drive, but examining it revealed that it contained only those I'd copied to it a year ago. None of their later photos from several trips abroad had been backed up.

To sort this out I had to go into the Autoplay settings in Control Panel to set it back to "Ask me every time", and then create a simple batch file in the root of the drive to copy the new photos. But, of course, there wasn't room on the thumb drive for all the new photos so we fetched a 500GB USB disk from a local store and I set up the batch file on that. Now all they need to do is run the batch file after loading new photos, music, videos, or documents onto the computer and they'll all get backed up automatically.

Except that, until you come to show someone how to do this, you don't realize how unintuitive it all is. Plug in the drive and wait for the autoplay dialog. Select "Open folder to view the files". Double-click on BackUpMyFiles (the name I gave to the BAT file), wait until the black window disappears, close the window showing the files on the USB drive, click the icon in the notification area that looks like a tall thin box with a tick on it, select "Disconnect storage drive D:", wait for the confirmation message, and finally unplug the drive. And if you forget to close the file window first you get an error that the device is still in use, but no indication of what to do about it.

OK, so this is Windows Vista, and thankfully Windows 8 can do all this through the cloud much more easily. But, despite my pleas to upgrade, they're unlikely to do so any time soon (probably only when the computer breaks down and has to be replaced). And they are the exception - most home user help requests I get are still for Windows XP.

Perhaps when I make my fortune and become a philanthropist my calling will be to upgrade everyone I know to Windows 8 for free, though whether it will install on my neighbor's ten year old HP tower computer (which doesn't even have a built-in CD drive) is questionable. And we'll probably be on Windows 23 by then anyway...