February 2010

Volume 25 Number 02

Don’t Get Me Started - The Human Touch

By David S. Platt | February 2010

The screenshot below shows the movable, dockable main menu bar, a so-called “feature” that appeared in Microsoft Office Word 97 and departed with the menu in Office Word 2007. Have you ever moved the main menu because you wanted to? Have you ever seen, or even heard of, anyone doing that? You haven’t, and neither have I. We’ve only dislodged it by accident, reaching for the File menu and overshooting by a pixel or two, usually in the morning when we’ve had too much coffee. We had to break our train of thought, re-dock the bar, then spend 30 seconds cursing the programmers who wrote that behavior. It might not sound like much, but figure 30 seconds, twice a day, times a billion users, and Word wastes 27 human lifespans every single day on this foolishness. Don’t get me started ...

The Moveable Menu Bar: Bad Idea

This feature is bad because it requires the user to become more precise in his mouse clicking, and punishes him if he doesn’t. It disrespects and denies the fundamental humanity of the user. Computers are diligent; they are thorough; they are precise. Humans are none of these. That’s why we invented computers: to be these things that we are not. This feature demands that users become less human and more like a computer. It’s impolite, counterproductive, and philosophically wrong. It’s not a feature: Because our goal is to make users happy so they pay us money, it’s a bug.One might reasonably argue that, given the adolescent age of the PC software industry at the time, nobody knew how wrong this feature would be until they had tried it; thus, it represents a necessary step in the evolution of software. And nobody died from it, (leastways not that I know of). But it’s time we took what we learned from treating 
users wrong, and use that knowledge to treat them right.

 We can see this evolution in Word’s auto-correct feature, an absolute gem. I think much faster than I type. (I don’t think all that fast, I just type really slowly, for a geek.) In my haste to get my words into Word before they flee my brain, my one hand sometimes moves faster than the other and I type “hte” when I really mean “the.”

Word does not scream an alarm to demand that I stop and fix my error, nor does it pop a box into my face saying “Didn’t you really mean 
‘the’?” It doesn’t even underline it with a red squiggle for me to come back to later. Instead, Word automatically fixes my typo, magically converting my “hte” into the “the” that I really meant. Word says with its actions, “No problemo Plattski, you sleep-deprived, 
hyper-caffeinated human being; I know what you meant. I’ll take care of this silliness for you, you just keep ranting.” And it does the same with every misspelling and other typo in its large and increasing memory.

This feature uses the computer to do what computers do best, so that the human user can do what humans do best. It understands; it respects; it even enhances the humanity of the user. This is what computer software really can be and should be.

Think about it: two features in the same program. One demands that humans become more like computers, the other helps them be even more human. Which would you rather use? (OK, I know, you’re a geek, that’s why you’re reading this magazine, but which would your paying customers rather use?) Humans are not going to stop being human any time soon, no matter how much you might wish they would evolve into something more logical. Good applications recognize this, and adjust to their human users, instead of hoping, futilely, for the opposite.

David S. Platt teaches Programming .NET at Harvard University Extension School andat companies all over the world. He’s the author of 11 programming books, including “Why Software Sucks” and “Introducing Microsoft .NET.” Microsoft named him a Software Legend in 2002. He wonders whether he should tape down two of his daughter’s fingers so she learns how to count in octal. You can contact him at rollthunder.com.