Software Usability is All That Matters

By: Mike Banks Valentine

GUI, or Graphic User Interface is the term tossed about by
technology geeks to define the only thing that matters to the
rest of us. How we interact and deal with our software is
entirely determined by programmers based upon instructions
they receive from whomever hired them to do their jobs. Their
job is to make software use easy, obvious - even invisible.

I don't want to know how computers work. Don't care in the least!
I only want them to work. I don't want to become a geek in order
to visit a web site. I don't want or need instructions from the
geek that designed the web site about how the page was coded or
what server software they use. I don't want to know anything
about my car, my computer, my home appliances or even my wrist
watch. I just want them to do their job without breaking and
without cryptic error messages meant for software engineers.

I have owned and happily used four or five generations of Apple
Macintosh computers for precisely these reasons. Those machines
have happily answered all of my needs, and for the most part,
run all the software I have bought and loaded into them without
a hiccup. If there was a goofy message on the screen telling me
there was a problem, I called the support phone number on the
box or on the web site and got instructions about how to make
the message go away.

Whenever technology is new, users of that technology must become
experts in the inner workings of it to be users, expertise is often
required. Now that the personal computer has passed its twentieth
birthday, it's time to stop talking about users as experts and for
users to simply be users. Mac OS X is another very proper step in
that direction.

I attended Seybold San Francisco, where I heard Steve Jobs intro-
duce Mac OS X (that's Operating System Ten). I loved that this
apparently powerful guy came on stage at a keynote address in his
faded jeans and tennis shoes.

Here is a human being I can relate
to who dresses as I do even if he can easily afford to outdress me.
Here is a guy that makes computers do their job so I don't have to.

Jobs then introduced Phil Schiller, Apple's vice president of
Worldwide Product Marketing, also dressed casually, to discuss all
the new goodies in OS X and show off its increased speed since the
March 2001 release. System 10.1 is now so much faster that you don't
notice the machine taking time to "think" when you open a program.

As it should be.

Also, as it should, the user interface offers a wonderfully easy to
comprehend tool bar incorporating their powerful graphics engine
to provide on-screen imagery that, as always, makes you smile while
subtly showing you what is happening as you click stuff. It's fast,
it makes me smile and you don't have to be a geek to get it. That's
for me. I want it.

I heard a very long time ago that defragmenting disks was very
important to do and even though I don't understand WHY, I do it
often because I can do it by starting the program and walking
away from the computer while it goes about this important task by
itself. Why not automate the process when it's so important to do?

I heard the other day about someone having the brilliant idea to
make disk defrag programs run automatically because users don't
understand what they do and don't use them. Brilliant! DOH!
Just as I haven't got a clue what to do when my washing machine
stops working, so to do I remain puzzled when my computer stops
working. My Maytag doesn't flash error messages, it just quits.

A friend asked me about an error message she was getting on her
Compaq Desktop machine tonight and when I sat down in front of
the screen I was greeted by a dialog box that said something on
the order of "Regenv32 has caused an error in and will
now shut down" and of course, the only choice is "OK" and it did.
She only uses her computer to surf the web, read email and use
the word processing program occasionally. Should we track down
and fix this meaningless "problem"?

Several Apples ago, I bought a book called "Macs for Dummies"
and my all time favorite line from that book is repeated over
and over again throughout the book. "This message is meaningless,
ignore it and reboot" in reference to any one of many possible
error messages in dialog boxes that appear on screen before,
during or after a system crash.

One thing I understand very clearly on the list of benefits
Phil Schiller's numbered powerpoint slides was point number
3. "Embrace Open Standards" that means that Apple is committed
to coming out of hiding when it comes to proprietary software.
It means that the new core of Unix that underlies OS X makes
it incredibly stable, available to tweaks and improvements in
security and usability by geeks worldwide, not just those in
Apple headquarters in Cupertino.

OS X crashes less often, makes me smile more than the OS 9 did,
it does its job faster and even comes with System 9 built in,
to run all the software that worked on it before you upgraded.
I struggled to remember how much RAM I had in my iMac DV when
I spoke to an Apple representative on the trade show floor and
recalled that I had asked them to double what it came with when
I bought it, so that means it will run OS X, according to the rep.

COOL! I don't know how it works, but I use it 8 hours a day so
it's important that I like using it. I do.

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