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User interfaces my mother doesn't understand:

- Running multiple applications at the same time is too confusing. She doesn't understand/notice the taskbar. She always tries to close one thing before starting another. Also, she doesn't notice that she has four copies of gmail open in the same browser -- since she doesn't understand what tabs are either.

- Window geometry is never manipulated. She has never maximized, minimized, or resized a window.

- As a result of the first two problems, inter-window operations such as drag and drop, cut and paste are often impossible.

- She doesn't know when it's correct to left click, right click, or double left click to do what she wants. So she opts for double-clicking on everything: links, buttons, menus, credit card purchases...

- She used to have 10 different "toolbars" activated in word 2003 because she couldn't find the button she needed, and they are randomly positioned everywhere because of accidental dragging (probably from overzealous double-clicking). Then one day she accidentally dragged the main toolbar offscreen, and was no longer able to open, save, or print...

- Corollary to above -- she avoids menus, since they appear to her as a hierarchical wall of text full of jargon. Also, they are difficult to use when you tend to over-double-click, since they close themselves...

- Activating Chinese UI in i18n-enabled programs it is often detrimental, as she doesn't have the tech vocabulary in Chinese either, and it just makes it harder for me to help her remotely.

- She clicks on a word doc attachment in gmail, spends hours editing it, and can never find the file again, because it's really called "C:\Documents and Settings\Username\Temp\awq2a393.doc"

- She will click OK on any dialog box to make it go away, because she is trained to close dialog boxes that way. Even if the dialog box is a security popup warning for a sketchy activeX control.

- She calls firefox "the google" because it was installed by google pack, and opens to the google homepage. She doesn't know the difference between the browser and the internet.

- She doesn't understand why she can't print a web page and have it look nice, without all the extra columns of ad junk.

+ Okay, one thing that does work well for her -- hitting control key twice accesses google desktop search popup to find anything -- even those annoying files in TEMP. She can remember that shortcut.

Once ipad gets traditional chinese support -- I'm going to get her one, and cut my tech support calls by 90%...

- Email can have multiple recipients and reply vs reply-to-all

My mother has been using Outlook at her office for over 5 years. When I send an email to both her and my father, she replies only to me and frequently ends with "tell your father..."

-Copy and paste

Somehow, she understands CUT and paste, but can't make the mental leap to COPY. She typically cuts, pastes it right back to where she came from, and then goes to paste it again elsewhere.


Despite all this, she used to work with a 100% text mode CLI app for requisitioning with airline tickets as a travel agent. She was an expert at esoteric commands and had a little notebook that co-workers had photocopied and bound as a reference manual. She didn't understand a thing that she was typing, but she knew which magic incantations worked and which didn't. I noticed that she was doing the equivalent of calling functions, piping data, storing variables, etc., but to her it was "I type this in, and instead of 'CITY' I write the actual city name. Oh, but if the city name has a space in it, I need to type \ before the space. But if I type a \ anywhere else, it can crash the whole computer."

That last bit reminds me of an old "Practical Guide to UNIX" book that I happened upon in a used bookstore some time back. I started looking through the examples for the various command line functions and most all of them were put in terms of something a secretary might want to do (type up notes, find files using various types of searches, split files up and distribute the parts along various organizational lines, collect together such parts into new files and format those to look better when printed, even the basics for how to script anything they found themselves doing on a regular basis). It got me wondering if secretaries were able to use such books and become command line gurus back in the day? Maybe they weren't and that type of book was a total failure.

> Somehow, she understands CUT and paste, but can't make the mental leap to COPY. She typically cuts, pastes it right back to where she came from, and then goes to paste it again elsewhere.

That's a pro trick, I think. I consider myself a power user and I switched from copy+paste to cut+paste+paste a while ago. It gives me an extra kick of making sure the copy worked as intended.

Clearly you should set up a mail filter that forwards emails with "From: Mom" and mail body containing "tell your father".

I don't think that's a great idea. A mum/mom could always send an email saying "DON'T tell your father!"

Running multiple applications at the same time is too confusing. She doesn't understand/notice the taskbar. She always tries to close one thing before starting another.

Machines with multiple functions/modes/uses are a generational thing. Up until the late 70's hardly anyone ever encountered a profoundly multi-function device before. Multitasking devices didn't come into mainstream use until later. Think about it, isn't it weird to have something that can be one kind of appliance, then after activating one control, have it change into a different kind of thing altogether? That would be like a fruit that resembles a pear when you peel it one way but an orange when you peel it another.

One can buy an actual crowbar/plier/wirecutter/hammer/wrench/screwdriver. A lot of people probably find it easier to have 1 tool for each purpose and grab the right one.

Does anyone remember the 1970's? Just how well would a TV/typewriter/stereo/VCR/telephone/phonograph/answering machine have sold? I think most people's eyes would've glazed over. Well, the personal computer has functions that subsume all of those devices, and the eyes of a lot of adults who were alive back then do glaze over when they encounter one.

"Just how well would a TV/typewriter/stereo/VCR/telephone/phonograph/answering machine have sold?"

That just blew my mind. I've never thought of a computer as _being_ all of those devices. I've always held the mental model of a computer being a really dumb robot of sorts that would perform separate actions.

Like a computer could _do_ all of those things, much in the same way I can drive, cook, balance a checkbook, etc.

I think this is a really fundamental computer science thing people whose names are not "Alan Turing" have to be taught (ideally in gradeschool) but few are. In many fields, the more expert you are, the bigger the wall of tools you have. (48 wrenches!!!). But a computer can literally become any other computer. That's fundamentally awesome and, for many, hard to understand.

Knowing that a particular interface is almost completely accidental is often the key missing piece in going from being utterly helpless to solve a problem to being able to puzzle it out.

Knowing that a particular interface is almost completely accidental...

Yes! A lot of interfaces are largely arbitrary fictions! If more people understood this, there would also be fewer fan boyish arguments.

Also suggests a metric/strategy: minimize the amount of fiction in your UI and maximize the fundamental principles. (Example, sliders are well understood, because most people understand basic geometry.)

Yes, but you have this mental furnishing of "a dumb robot...that would perform" multiple functions. Earlier generations don't have that. Instead, they have this TV/typewriter/stereo/VCR/telephone/phonograph/answering machine that will also come to do god only knows what else in the near future.

Only a matter of time before some biotech genius invents a fruit that has different tastes depending on how you peel it, then it's my turn for a brain meltdown.

Up until the late 70's hardly anyone ever encountered a profoundly multi-function device before.


Yes, and I note that many people who are mystified by computers like to talk to them as if they were people.

Wow, your mom is super-savvy compared to my folks. My mom and dad, bless their hearts, have a lot of trouble with the notion of applications/programs. They don't see applications, they only see things to do. As in:

- Double click (they double click or triple click everything, i.e click till it does something) a certain icon to video chat with us.

- Another icon to send email (a bookmark to gmail)

Even in something like Skype, finding the Chat window (the one you type into) while video chatting is a struggle every time. That skype has a proliferation of tabs and buttons doesn't help, but the idea is that the _vocabulary_ to deal with this sort of thing isn't known to them. I often end up getting frustrated trying to help them do something, and that's when they are already on a video chat with me.

Personally, this sort of thing is very saddening. That I cannot talk to them about the internet (outside of mail and video chat), that they may not fully realize the extent of human accomplishment in the age the live in, is heartbreaking to me. Bad software interfaces are excluding entire generations of human beings from learning about and using technology effectively.

One thing my girlfriend does that I've never understood - she can use my iPhone or iPad expertly (she's even figured a few things out on her own that I didn't know, like unpinch-to-fullscreen video on the iPad). Yet for the longest time, she would always double-click the home button on my iPhone to quit the app, then turn it off.

Because I had double-click-home set to the camera, this meant that every other time I started my iPhone, it was in the camera app, which was really confusing a lot of the time. Once I started installing the iOS4 betas, though, and double-click-home became 'reveal task switcher', her double-triple-quintuple clicking the home button did nothing but show and hide a row of icons.

After the first time she did that and I made fun of her, she learned pretty quick. Still, this sort of thing happens to the smartest/most capable/most educated people. It's not just mom and dad.

User interfaces can't take all of the blame, because there's only so much they can do - people have to want to learn as well. What other complex tool would you expect to pick up and use without any training?

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