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Matthew Wilson

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"I don't get it. Whoosh! Next."

January 13, 2010

A fascinating coincidence today: I was watching Billy Connolly participating in (his wife) Pamela Connolly's Shrink Wrap programme of psychological interviews. At the same time, I'm wrestling with Office 2007's perverse new user interface paradigm. And Windows 7. And my iPhone.

[ Disclaimer: before we proceed, I must admit to being an anachronist of long-standing. I deliberately hang on to old hardware and operating systems, partly so that when I write software that runs quickly on them, it'll run a whole lot quicker on newer systems. I still use (on Windows, anyway) Visual Studio '98 for writing (if not for building) C++ source code, because (i) it responds to key presses as fast as I can make them (which is pretty fast), (ii) it doesn't require several gigabytes of working set, and (iii) I still haven't been moved to port all my macros and add-ins to a newer (fatter, slower) version of the same program. The reason I'm finally using Office 2007 is that I need to be able to support a clients' financial software on all versions of Excel.]

Anyhoo, back on point. Billy was having a much-tangential rant, and fixed on the subject of "getting it" - programmers call it grokking. He comes up with the wonderful observation:

"It's taken all my life for these things to dawn on me, just like getting it and not getting it. Coz with the getting it and not getting it is so good coz you can then put something aside: "I don't get it. Whoosh. Next!" instead of saying "Why don't I get it? Why don't I understand that?" There is no why! There only is an is and an isn't. You know what I mean?

Yes, Billy, I know what you mean.

Well, I'm definitely not against improvement. But change for change's sake is just an abuse of users. What some software companies fail to grok - are you getting it?! - is that software should get better, not just different. Each version should be more robust, more efficient, easier to use, and, if new features are there, they should not impact robustness, efficiency or ease of use. Sure, it takes discipline, skill and effort, but it's not impossible. (I personally don't even think it's that hard.)

So, what's the problem with Office 2007? I don't get it, that's what. The interface is different, with almost none of the original menus, and there appears to be no way of getting back the interface that's been ingrained in users for ~20 years. What a massive cost in effort to the world1. At least it still crashes in the middle of important work in a familiar way.

I don't get it. Whoosh! Next.   I'll stick with Office 2000/2003

And don't even get me started on Windows 7.

Here's the thing: I still prefer the Windows 2000 UI over all previous and subsequent versions. What I didn't like was the security vulnerabilities, the lack of hardware support (c/w XP), the lack of useful later operating system API functions (esp. multithreading ones), and other behind-the-scenes issues. The key to addressing such needs is to fix what's underneath, leaving what's fine about the UI as is, and making small incremental improvements. The thing not to do is to constantly change the interface without fixing up what's underneath. How about each time a new operating system comes along it is faster, more reliable and secure, and simpler than the last one?

Thankfully I missed Vista entirely - yeah! - and at least Windows 7 appears pretty stable. Of course, since I can't find my way to do actually anything, maybe it'll start crashing when I start using it for anything more than remote desktopping into other machines running XP ...

I don't get it. Whoosh! Next.   I'll stick with XP/Linux/Mac OS-X

Even though I hate my iPhone even more than I hate Office 2007 and Windows 7 combined, at least I understand how to use it. Here was a user interface revolution that worked, because almost everything is genuinely intuitive. (And choice is restricted, which helps with discoverability.) The problem with the iPhone is it's unbelievably woeful performance, and the fact that it can hold a wireless connection for even less time than a politician can keep his/her word. (It's usually a him.)

I don't get it. Whoosh! Next.   I'll stick with my simple, unsophisticated, reliable old Nokia, a phone that's, er, a phone.

(Aside: if you can, I would recommend that you watch the interview. The first time through I laughed and smiled along; but then I watched it again with pen and paper, as a richer seam of quotes for my next books' chapters I have never encountered. I don't know if you can get it outside of Australia, but the ABC's helpful iView application means one need never watch a scheduled program again.


1: With some very rough assumptions: 500,000,000 people use Office; each uses two office applications on average; each spends 5 minutes a day for 3 months learning the new interface; the average pay is $10 per hour. That's ~$27B!

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