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ECT News Community   »   LinuxInsider Talkback   »   Re: Should Operating Systems Be Intuitive?

Re: Should Operating Systems Be Intuitive?
Posted by: Katherine Noyes 2009-09-24 05:02:04
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Should computers be intuitive, requiring little to no learning or thinking? For that matter, is it even possible for them to be so? "Nothing is intuitive," said Slashdot blogger Gerhard Mack told LinuxInsider. "Think about it: We have to be taught to use a toilet, how to use a fork and how to drive. Why do we expect computers to be some magic thing that does not have a learning curve?" On the other hand, "I don't see why they can't be intuitive," argued Slashdot blogger drinkypoo. "I don't think that study and learning should be required for consumer-oriented platforms."

Breastfeeding and computers
Posted by: rich3800 2009-09-30 04:31:06 In reply to: Katherine Noyes
While comparing computers and breastfeeding as to intuitiveness, one has to know that the baby has in its DNA the breastfeeding mechanisms that complement the mother's own, to reach out to the breast, to suckle, etc. "Stub" mechanisms, I call them, like the client-server Internet paradigm. We all have to learn to control our limbs to have them move in certain directions for a certain distance. The desktop experience builds on that: one grabs the mouse, moves the mouse by a certain amount, the computer keeps track of the location of the mouse to determine what task it has to perform next.

Essence, naming, and intuitiveness
Posted by: golodh 2009-09-30 01:06:54 In reply to: Katherine Noyes
The essence of the discussion seems to be: should an operating system be easy to use for end-users.

The word "intuitive" is a bit ambiguous because it depends on the level of background knowledge and above all "what one is used to" as a measure of "intuitiveness". Only a bit, because (a) the experience of the average computer end-user is MS Windows, and (b) a properly constructed GUI obviates the need for users to know the list of available commands in advance which always beats a CLI in terms of intuitiveness for those who have little or no knowledge of the system in question.

In this vein I will adopt a slightly more precise interpretation of "easy to use" in the sense of:
(a) requiring little detailed knowledge on part on an end-user
(b) presenting end-users with at least one interface that has a shallow learning curve
(c) presenting end-users with a forgiving and idiot-resistant interface (as in: 'it's not so easy to accidentally destroy things, and you will get a warning when you try something irrevocable')

Of course there will always be a need for specialist software packages and "power user" interfaces to operating systems etc. In such cases a CLI really seems a good way to go, because it's easy to implement, its actions tend to be very reproduceable (as opposed to endless lists of manual point and click actions), and it can be scripted.

However, looking again at the question: "should computers, operating systems, and general end-user software packages be intuitive in the sense of having shallow learning curves and hard to accidentally abuse?" I strongly believe that the answer is "Yes", and that, generally speaking and as things are now, MS Windows and MacOs GUIs have done a better job of it than Linux GUIs, and are doing a much better job of it than the Linux CLI.

Simple things (like basic functionality) ought to be simple and the system ought to give visual clues as to what to do and how far the operation has progressed. That's basic ergonomics.

Of course, and referring to the highly graphical example of the toilet, there is always *some* learning involved in using a tool (even using one's own hands and legs involves some sort of training).

The question is "how much", and "how easy is it to correctly operate the appliance".

In the case of a toilet end-the user only has to memorize some general principles and the desired end-state. Specifically the need to memorize and reproduce a precise set of instructions is obviated by the design of the appliance.

Most parts of the actual use of a toilet are highly standardized and progress is very transparent. Even the most elaborate Japanese conveniences have sensible default settings which relieve the end-user of the need for detailed knowledge (or the need to be able to comprehend the instructions for use, which tend to be in Japanese).

The only difficulty that may arise is the operation of the flushing interface to finalize the session, but even then the overwhelming majority of interfaces basically consist of a switch that has to be operated, either by pushing, turning, pulling, or standing up. In the vast majority of cases an end-user is able to experiment without risking inconvenience or irreparable damage to essential assets.

In this vein one could identify two camps. One that insists that basic functionality should be safe, standardized and readily accessible through an easily recognizable and memorizeable interface.

And another that insists that, in the interests of efficiency, freedom of expression and-so-forth, the entire convenience ought to be commandline operated, and always ready to, without the slightest warning, dispose the entire contents of the convenience plus any nearby objects irrevocably into an industrial-strength shredder by specifying the appropriate option on said commandline.

Any complaints about loss of property (or relatives) to be greeted by more or less polite variations on the term "RTFM".

The above (very graphical) example precisely illustrates my view on the question of whether or not an essential (but totally subordinate) element like an operating system or a computer ought to be.

There is no reason for them not to be easy to use and fool-resistant besides laziness of the designers and builders.

Wrong word, wrong discussion
Posted by: akcoyote 2009-09-26 16:43:09 In reply to: Katherine Noyes
'Intuitive' is is indeed used frequently to describe a desirable goal in man-machine interfaces. However, this is a terrible choice of word to describe the actual problems being discussed.

'Familiar' is better, but not great. Familiar suggests a learned action/response that we expect to find in future encounters with the same cue.

We are familiar with the visual cue that a vertical door handle suggests we should pull to open and a horizontal handle (bar) should be pushed to open. We are surprised and annoyed when the handles are reversed. This is a classic example of both human interface design we rely upon in every day life.

In my opinion, 'consistent' is the word which should be most closely associated to the desired goal of ease of learning / use. In most situations the door handles and actions they imply are consistent. Entering a new building where the handles are reversed will likely never become familiar.

There are two rooms in my house where the light switches are on the 'wrong' side of the door and even after 6 years in the house I still reach to the wrong location every time I fail to consciously think about where the switch is. This is another case of where a 'familiar' learned experience lets us walk into a home or building and 'know' where the light switch will be.

Consistency is also key to the Macintosh user interface which is often described as 'intuitive'.

Beyond expecting something to happen when I click the mouse and expect something to happen or move the mouse and expect to see the pointer move in the same direction there are few things 'intuitive' about the Mac interface.

Back in the early days of Windows, a head hunter set up an interview for me with Apple for a sales position. At the end of the interview I told the Apple folks that I had two major reservations about working for them.

One of these was that I had extensive experience with minicomputer and IBM pc software and systems and like many of my peers considered Macs more toys than computers. (I mean really! No CLI?) I couldn't see myself announcing to friends whom I had told that when they got a 'real' computer I might be able to help them with problems that now I was going to be selling these 'toys'.

The Apple folks must have been convinced that I could sell their products because promised to send me a Mac with software if I would just promise to try it out.

When I first started learning PCs I had the advantage that DOS and CP/M were both derived from software I was familiar with, all of which incorporated a CLI or CLI 'like' interface for 'high level' system control and dedicated applications.

Besides the most popular PC application, Wordperfect, was first introduced on Data General computers and I was already an expert on it. It was virtually identical when they ported it over to DOS for PCs.

It 'only' took me about 3 months of self taught learning on a PC to be competent enough to charge for my help and advice on DOS and Wordperfect. I even picked up a smattering of knowledge of Novell networking 'expertise' along the way. The environment was familiar and the manuals were pretty good for each of these.

When the Mac Plus arrived with keyboard, mouse, external (2nd diskette drive) and a 20Mb external Hard Drive which proved to have the software loaded on it there were no manuals included. I called my Apple contact to ask when the manuals would show up and in essence they just laughed. Well, that pushed my pride button real hard.

I proceeded to visit the 3 local Apple dealers and restricted myself to 3 questions each in hopes that in the remote possibility I did take a job with Apple they wouldn't remember me and my ignorance.

Three weeks after receiving the computer, I had an epiphany. Without embarrassment, I would have charged clients for my help and support on not only the Mac OS, but no less than 6 applications including Word. (You can judge how long ago this was by the fact that a 400k diskette had room for the Word program plus a couple of documents.)

I took the job with Apple and about 3 months later I finally put together why I had such a short learning curve.

Apple 'forced' programmers to be 'consistent' between programs. Open, Close, Print, Quit, etc. were always found in the same place in the menus. Error and operational messages were all the same in response to the same triggering events. Only functions and messages specific to the program appeared were 'new' or in different locations.

No matter what new program I tackled I started out 50% or even more of the way to being an expert because it was 'consistent' and therefore familiar. If I understood the function of the program everything else was a breeze.

During the same period, every DOS program had a different, 'better' user interface and had to be learned from scratch. It didn't improve much when Windows was introduced and there is still a huge difference between the consistency on Macs and Windows PCs. (Linux is even less consistent than Windows in software and hardware.)

This experience with Macs and Don Norman's book 'The Design of Everyday Things' made me the advocate of consistency in software (including Web design) human interfaces.

All of this has been good to me.

I was #1 in Apple Education Sales and turned in increasing sales each year which earned a nice paycheck and some great award trips.

And the inconsistency in the Windows world (both hardware and software) has earned me a good living since leaving Apple.

Why is clearly illustrated by an analysis I did of my practice in the mid 90s for a client considering switching from Macs to Windows. I went back through my records for a bit less than 2 years and compared my billings between the Mac systems and Windows systems I had contracts to support. Since I was the only Mac support person in the organization I did all the Mac support and supported a roughly equal number of Windows desktops and servers. (About 500 each.) Fully 92% of my billings were for Windows support.

Bottom line was I would have starved to death trying to make a living supporting only Macs.

I believe this is still true and give thanks every day to Redmond and Windows software and hardware developers for my comfortable lifestyle.

Let me offer just one other example of the power of consistency. Over the years virtually every DOS / Window client has lauded and/or cussed their software documentation. Mac users often had not even taken the shrink wrap off their documentation months after taking delivery.

Every 'Windows' manual had been read to at least some extent while many Mac users often can't find theirs. A consistent user interface is the only explanation I can find.

Before anyone asks, my perception is the Mac users were generally more productive while the Windows user community had more 'experts' helping others.

If we want Linux to ever be a serious competitor on the desktop (and I surely do) we need either a Steve Jobs style dictator ruling the Linux user interface design or another form of 'religious movement' enforcing consistency.

At least this is my opinion.

Intuitive Operating System? No way!
Posted by: Farrell 2009-09-24 11:31:10 In reply to: Katherine Noyes
What is needed is a simple, customizable shell that sits on the operating system...ultimately, all operating systems today do much the same thing...talk TCP/IP, manage files, manipuate text and graphics and interface with peripherals. The human factors designing for accessing that doesn't need to be part of the operating system, but a shell on top of it. It should be common to all operating systems, but customizable to make use of any special features that the OS has, and to make the computer work for *you*, not force you to conform to the interface. Even just the simple thing of easily moving where the control key, for example, and increase the usablity for certain people (full disclosure...ME!).

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