This seems to be the season of small things that can stop users dead in their tracks. Last week I wrote about a senior woman who had what I would consider a trivial issue, but it stopped her from doing what she wanted to do. This week I got another call – this time from a male client – who was having trouble with e-mail. I couldn’t understand his description of the problem as he reported it on the telephone. He said something like: “When I’m trying to write, it erases what I have. It hasn’t done that before.”

In fact, I’m sure that is not exactly what he said. If he had been as descriptive as what I just wrote, I would have told him how to fix it immediately. However, I happened to be in his neighborhood anyway, and said I would stop by to take a look. When I got there, he was still sitting at his desk looking dispirited. “See, I’m just trying to correct this letter and it has to go out today.” He typed a few words, which promptly typed over the existing text. I suggested that he press the “Ins” button on the bottom left of his keyboard. He did and was delighted to see he could now type as usual. Again, another totally trivial item that stopped a mature person from doing what he wanted to do. Only this one has a twist. I fault the system, not the user.

Why do we have such an easy switch with no real purpose? How many times has anyone actually used the typeover feature? As critical as it is to know which state is operational, why do all word processing and editor functions display only a small icon or other warning in an obscure place where they are essentially useless? Since typeover is rarely used, a reasonable thing would be to place a large red status icon on the screen screaming “Typeover!” whenever it is activated. I would also suggest making it more difficult to activate accidentally. Maybe requiring a double click would work.

Along the same line, I would love to hear from anyone who has ever found a use for the upper-lower case reversal that replaces the “Caps Lock” function without changing the name. What was the designer thinking of? Locking the keyboard into all uppercase has a purpose. Inverting the function of the shift key has no purpose except to introduce errors when operating in “Caps Lock” mode. More than once I have wanted a sentence in all uppercase, hit “Caps Lock,” started typing and found that my sentence started with a lowercase character and that people mentioned in the sentence had lowercase letters starting their names. You can blame me for making such simple errors, but if many people make the same error, then the design is the problem, not the user.

These are simple examples of poor engineering that don’t get much attention. Compare them to the periodic complaints we hear about the QWERTY keyboard. In fact, I don’t have much complaint about the keyboard. Any layout is arbitrary, and the best evidence that the alternative Dvorak keyboard is significantly better comes from the tests Dvorak did in support of his sales effort. The assumption that certain fingers are better than others for pounding keys is sufficiently seductive that most people do not question it. Maybe there is some small advantage, but it is certainly neutralized by the established convention.

Why worry about designing a better keyboard layout when most people have no problem locating the keys they want, but are stymied when they accidentally hit the “Ins” key, which they don’t really need in the first place, or when the introduce lowercase characters into what should have been all uppercase because some engineer changed the definition of “cAPS lOCK”?

Do you have other rants about simple engineering changes that could make life easier and more productive?

Recently I finished updating and expanding the first version of my tutorial on decision theory. Now I am doing the same with the tutorial on Senior Computing. Several readers have expressed their desire to see certain features in the expanded version. If you have a topic that you think should be featured, please let me know, and I will try to include it in the update. The new version will probably by 3-5 times longer than the first version and contain many more hints and anecdotal stories from the trenches. I am considering soliciting input from seniors who have recently become computer literate so that they can express in their own words what worked and what didn’t. Ideally I would also have input from computer dropouts, but that is more difficult to come by.

In the meantime, for more in-depth tips on tutoring seniors, see the complete tutorial. I also have posted a tutorial on elementary decision theory for those who might question a physician’s diagnosis (important for seniors) or anti-terrorist activities (important for everyone) but haven’t had the mental framework to analyze the data.

[tags]senior learning,sherman e. deforest,computer tutorial,bad engineering,qwerty,dvorak[/tags]