"The real problem is what to do with the problem-solvers after the problems are solved."
– Gay Talese
I contend that over time, software has become more difficult, not easier, for people to learn. I swear learning software didn’t used to be as hard as it is now. Yes, way back in the bad old days of computing, some people showed more of an aptitude and learned software more quickly than others. But having helped people with software for years, I think the software learning curve has actually increased rather than decreased, even with the introduction of graphical user interfaces, pointing devices, and elaborate help systems.
These days, we have gazillions of programming minds hard at work trying to make software better for you and me. But it seems like software is more overloaded and complicated than ever before. Have software developers just gotten bored and started adding features we don’t want?
Focus groups and analysts spend countless hours figuring out how people use Microsoft Word, for example. You’d think all this research would help in the ease-of-use department. Yet almost daily, I encounter people who are completely baffled by the software on their computer. These folks aren’t stupid, inexperienced or uninformed, yet they are completely mystified.
For example, because I’ve been developing a lot of Web sites, recently so I’ve been spending a tremendous amount of time in Macromedia Dreamweaver. Dreamweaver is an extremely powerful program and I probably use only a fraction of the features built into it. But in today’s world, that makes me a "power user."
Realistically, in many ways, I use Dreamweaver as a (very expensive) code editor. I don’t use much of the automatic stuff like the horrid layout table features. That’s just asking for trouble because it puts in stuff I don’t want. Some of the default things it does with styles I don’t agree with either.
The bottom line is that I believe I am smarter than Dreamweaver. If I use anything automatic, I often find myself in a state of frustration when I discover it has added a bunch of code that I didn’t put there and don’t want. It’s the same reason I can barely stand to use recent versions of Microsoft Word. Every time I turn around, Word 2003 is trying to do something FOR me.
I maintain that the recent trend toward this type of software automation is the biggest reason new users are confused.
Think about it: if there’s a one-to-one relationship between doing something and something happening, people understand it. If things just start happening for no apparent reason, people get totally confused.
For example, if your table saw suddenly turned on by itself, wouldn’t you be alarmed? Okay, Microsoft Word isn’t going to hurt you when it randomly starts reformatting or inserting text, but it is nonetheless alarming because you have no idea why. New users don’t realize you can turn all this automatic garbage off, so complete and total bewilderment results.
Along the same lines, I may never upgrade my old FTP program. FTP stands for File Transfer Protocol and that’s what an FTP program does: it transfers files. Yet at some point, this process was deemed "hard" by some bored programmer. Now instead of a simple interface that shows the files on your computer on the left, the list of files on the server on the right, and arrows in the middle, many FTP programs hide this information. People using Front Page often don’t even know what FTP or a server is. (I’m sorry, but to create a Web site, you do need to know a little something.)
I just don’t understand how hiding things like file lists or formatting commands could be a good thing. The most egregious example of this stupidity is the "short menus" in Microsoft Office. What brain came up with the idea that NOT showing all your available menu commands is helpful to anybody?
Anyway, the bottom line is that back in the bad old days of computers, we may not have had pointing devices or elaborate help systems, but a file was a file. And when you performed some action, something happened.
It was a one-to-one relationship. And frankly, it wasn’t hard. It was good. I wish Microsoft and other software firms would gain a clue on this concept and stop over-complicating things that really are basically simple.
P.S. Think I’m just a whiner? Two days after I wrote this, I read an article that says the famous author of Moore’s Law, Gordon Moore, believes software is too complex. Apparently, he said, ""The capability of computers keeps growing and the number of applications running keeps increasing, but the people building the interface keep growing the complexity of that. It’s not for lack of effort but the software people are losing ground." So hey, it’s not just me 😉