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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