Sotto Voce.

"Qui plume a, guerre a." — Voltaire

Much Ado about Learning

Recently I was thinking back to a post and discussion about Microsoft Word over on Writer Underground. In particular, I was thinking about how writers define usability when it comes to software. And an idea wandered through my head:

Usability is much ado about learning.

As in, once you learn how to use Word, you can use it quickly and by extension efficiently. How is a learned design discernible from a “usable” design? “Hey, he’s able to do this task quickly. That must mean that the design has good usability.” The first time you sit down to use any piece of software, you don’t know where anything is and you have to poke around to find things. A good design might make those things easier to find, sure, but even then, once you find things, you have to learn how to use them together. And the more practice you have, the better tool it is for you. I mean, can you imagine a usability expert signing off on the design of a violin?

As much as I don’t like using Word, I have to say that, for me, it is usable — I use it every day to do the things I want it to do. That Word is deeply counterintuitive, that it gives you many ways to do those things incorrectly and only one way to do them correctly, and then buries that one correct way deeply in submenus or obfuscates it behind opaque design principles, is an absolute given. But once you learn that’s how X is done — and once you manage to remember the Twister-like dance required to conjure X — and assuming that Word actually doesn’t crash or return an inconsistent result trying to do X — then you get X when you push Y.

Which then leads to my codicil: a lot of the blame lies with the user not taking the time, or even wanting, to learn how to get X. How many times have I come to the aid of someone sitting in front of their computer like a pouting child, pointing at the screen and saying “All I want it to do is X! Why won’t it do X!” People who try to break Word to their will shall always be carried out on their shields. It’s that flippin’ simple. But who’s fault is that? I mean, when people get chewed up and spit out by Photoshop, they feel humbled and chastened because everyone knows it’s a complicated piece of software that takes a long time to master. But Word — well, isn’t everyone supposed to be able to use Word? That’s not a design issue, that’s a sales and marketing issue.

Pilots get into this sort of thing all the time. Old-time Douglas pilots still wax nostalgic about how the DC-8 and the DC-9 were real “pilot’s airplanes,” authentic hands-on, seat-of-the-pants, stick-n-rudder planes, while Boeing pilots argue back that they were ergonomic nightmares. (And everybody rips on Airbus planes.) But you know what? They all haul self-loading freight like you and me from one airport to another every day, and if the pilot knows how to FTFA, then the plane works. It’s usable.

And so is it with Word. Or whatever your favorite software is. You don’t have to convince anyone else. If the tool works, use it. If you use the tool, work it. Until it doesn’t. As my mentor Chips Woodruff (WWII fighter pilot, first-generation jet bomber pilot, and Curtis LeMay’s poker buddy) used to say, “Always trust your instruments. Except when they’re wrong.”

But then again, in a previous life, I probably flew Douglas.

Categorised as: Life the Universe and Everything

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  1. TCWriter says:

    For 90% of the writing done on the planet, there really isn’t much difference between bloated document processors like MS Word and hyper-powered programmer’s text editors (like I use).

    You type, the words appear, and mostly, everybody’s happy. Most software even offers all the necessary extra bits (spell checker, bullet points, auto-completion, a couple different display modes, etc). So there isn’t much between them.

    Where Word falls down is in the context of the modern workflow, where much of what’s written is destined for the online universe. In that context, its horrifying proprietary file format (codes and styles??) is a real PITA.

    The web developers I work with basically strip the text out of the Word files they receive and add the formatting (a second time) in whatever software’s next in line.

    In other words, there’s “usability” for users. And there’s usability in terms of workflow, and that’s where — in the online era — Word goes down in Airbus-esque flames.

    I think my biggest beef with MS Word isn’t that its ribbon UI and proprietary file format make it Satan’s Word Processor (well, they do, but…).

    Somehow, it’s became The Serious Writer’s Tool not because it is a Better Writer’s Tool, but because some smarty pants in Redmond saw the corporate appeal of the Office bundle. The rest is history.

    The damn thing’s inflicted on even those of us who think its “usability” is on a par with using leeches to cure headaches. I’m trying to fly my self-built lightweight, and yet The Man is forcing a Spruce Goose on me just to hop between airports (I expect to further abuse the airplane analogy in future comments).

    With the introduction of (admittedly still new) collaborative, online-friendly cloud software like Draft and Editorially, I think we’re seeing software that’s simpler and more usable for the majority of writers — and more friendly in terms of workflow.

  2. sottovoce says:

    To use another metaphor (because I can’t think of an airplane one that works here), if a person brings a knife to a gunfight, it’s not the knife’s fault.

    Using Word for something that it’s absolutely not suited for — like your example, online collaborative writing — is just inviting disaster. But that’s not Word’s fault. It’s the user’s. Whether it’s because the user fell for the marketing song-and-dance, or caved to pressure from The Man, or whatever reason, it’s the user’s choice to use the wrong tool.

    I’m in a similar bind right now. I’m on a project where Word is the wrong tool, and I’m trying to use the right tool. The enemy is inertia, not the software.

    The project has me preparing huge, massively complex Word documents with a style sheet that daily makes me want to tear out what little remaining hair I have — all just so that the DTP people downstream can strip everything out and XML the heck out of it.

    So, I’m trying to convince the PM that we need to persuade the client to let me do the writing and editing natively in XML. As a writer, I can use an XML editor just as easily — and probably more so — than Word. And I would very much like to. The potential cost and time savings are self-evident to the PM as well as to me. If it were my choice, I’d have shown up to this particular gunfight with a .44 Magnum XML editor and told the content to make my day.

    But even if I lose this battle (as I am likely to), I can’t blame Word for any of this. It’s the wrong tool for the job. That’s not Word’s fault, or even Redmond’s anymore. It’s a decision by the client who uses Office for everything — the user’s choice.

    • TCWriter says:

      But that’s not Word’s fault. It’s the user’s.

      I say “Free the Oppressed” (or, “Fight the Power” if we’re talking about IT). In your scenario, you’re the user; the people dictating the use of MS Word are

      My hope is that Word’s day has passed, and we’re now enjoying its too-slow decline into irrelevance. Like the dinosaurs, it’s positively Mesozoic; big and slow and bloated. In other words, the asteroid is on its way, the mammals are becoming bigger and more aggressive, and I can hear the volcanoes ramping up in the background.

      Good luck with your project. I’m sometimes forced to deal with Word’s files, but I’ve avoided the software for more than 8 years. Happily, I think it’s going to stay that way.

  3. Bill M says:

    I’ll take OpenOffice or LibreOffice over Word any day. I find most of the folks at work do to after I install it next to Word on their computers.

  4. sottovoce says:

    It could be a scandal straight out of a Murdoch paper:


    In a recent post, science fiction author and Ur-hater of MS Word Charlie Stross admitted that, when the chips were down, Word was the tool he trusted the most for a complex job:

    I try to avoid Microsoft Word like the plague, but I have my limits. For me, the requirement that finally made me crack and throw money at the Beast of Redmond was the need (in mid-2012) to edit, revise, and indeed redraft the first six books of the Merchant Princes series into three omnibus volumes in twelve weeks. . . . . I could have trusted LibreOffice to do the job right. But we’re talking about a corpus of, in the final version, 620,000 words . . . . The probability of LibreOffice being up to the task was high, but the risk if a hitherto-unsuspected bug surfaced and rendered my change-tracked files indigestible by Microsoft Word was that I’d have to throw out three months’ hard work and re-do from scratch. . . . Was retaining my ideological purity worth the risk of losing three months’ work and screwing my next year?

    The answer, of course, is no. Because even the people who rail against overpriced doctors will spare no expense when it’s their baby on the operating table.

    At that moment, despite Stross’ protestations, his decision was not based on “the workflow of the trade fiction publishing business” or because “Word is ubiquitous” or because “corporate IT . . . loves it” (all Stross’ words).

    It’s because, at that moment, when it really came down to it, MS Word was The Right Tool For The Job.


    Yet, despite the fact that Word saved him and his editors countless hours by doing a fine job on a complex manuscript under a tight deadline, Stross actually laments that Word is probably not going anywhere anytime soon:

    Novelists are not only not IT people; they are on average quite old (it’s rare to sell a first novel before you turn 30: most working novelists are middle-aged). They are emphatically not early adopters. And the corporate IT departments that support Microsoft applications across the organization will happily go on doing so, and go on ignoring newer and better alternatives that generate newer and more exciting management headaches, until change becomes not merely inevitable but overdue by about a decade and a half.

    Ah, yes, those overlooked “newer and better alternatives” . . . the ones that Stross didn’t use on his beloved manuscript.

    Sorry, my fellow Word haters, you just can’t have it both ways.

    • TCWriter says:

      Please. Stross says at several points he’s using MS Word’s file format because it’s been forced on him by the publisher.

      And the fact that he’s concerned about sinking many hours into a document that should be MS Word readable but might not be is reflective of the confused, sometimes-contradictory 200+ page MS Word file spec.

      In other words, he’s still just using because Microsoft has seen to it he has to.

      As for the newer and better alternatives, well, I’d suggest publishing is going to lag. Look for them first in the online world, where MS Word isn’t just an unfortunate standard, it’s a barrier.

      • sottovoce says:

        That sort of sounds like you’re suggesting that it’s Microsoft’s fault that no one else has developed a word processor that takes Word’s OpenXML SDK and builds a better interface around it, thereby allowing writers to give their old-fart bosses what they want without having to wrangle with Word’s subpar interface on a daily basis.