Thinking about the software of today, and remembering some of the great programs of yesterday, it is easy to see what the problem is. Programs today are written by people who are in a hurry to cash in on their offerings, but don’t realize what is needed to make things really useful.

There are two ways to make software really useful. The first, and the road that seems to have always been taken by Apple, is to have the ergonomics of use well thought out before release. The ‘human engineering’ has always been apparent in Apple’s offerings, as most people can sit down to a Mac, and within minutes, be amazingly productive. This is especially true for those who are older and haven’t been around computers before.

This is not, by definition, a platform related issue, as it would be possible for any other computer system to be as intuitive to operate, if only the designers cared. This is what is wrong with Windows, in every incarnation, and to a lesser extent, Linux shells. Windows was, in the beginning, different, for the sake of being different. Linux shells, are trying to gain popularity by emulating the Windows menu styles and program feel, which is fine, but not really innovative, just slightly different.

How did things get this way?

Windows programs have never been consistent, and apparently Microsoft either likes it that way, or doesn’t care enough to maintain consistency.

An example of this is drag-and-drop, in many programs one is able to mark an area, click on it to pick it up, and move across windows to drop the information into another program. MacIntosh software has always worked this way…back to the beginning when we referred to the machine as a MacIntosh.  Windows programs, well, no one ever said things would be easy…and they aren’t. Many windows are designed so that information can not be put into the clipboard, or on the other side, certain windows can not accept data from the clipboard.

People have, over time simply gotten accustomed to the idiosyncrasies of the ways the programs work. Yet, even today, the same look and feel is not found in every program. The menus of programs all include File, Edit, Tools, and Help headers, but no consistency is found under the headings. It would seem logical that with each iteration of the Windows operating system, that hosts, and serves as style format for all other programs, the interface would become more refined and familiar.  One look at the Vista offerings and it is clear that it just isn’t so.

A problem has also been the fact that Microsoft has always been ‘of two minds’ in the design of any interface. Giving the consumer choice of how to do things seems like a good thing, until realizing that it makes for twice the number of operations in any interface. If only one way was available to do a task, every program using the operating system could emulate that way, and much difficulty could be avoided. Another problem has been when two or more ways are available to accomplish a task, and the people who design things decide with an upgrade, the way that you learned to do something is no longer necessary, as there is still the other way of doing that particular task. If you did not learn the other way, you are in for some upgrades of your own.

This is, unfortunately, being duplicated with the Linux shells. No consistent way of accomplishing a task is present.

Since both Windows and Linux are suffering from ‘schizophrenia’, it would be logical to assume that complete manuals, or man pages, would be of great importance. They are, but not to the purveyors of these products. With Linux, it can be excused, as no one is charging for the product, so complaints can easily fall on deaf ears. With Windows, each iteration gets more and more expensive, yet the manual has managed to completely disappear

An entire cottage industry has come into being, because no one is willing to hold Microsoft, and every software company that produces for the Windows platform, responsible for decent documentation. Microsoft states that the on-line help is available, and also falls back to help via the internet. This is only effective if the computer in question has the ability to access either of these. Also, simply because the help is on the computer, does not make it usable, correct, or complete. There are many places in the Windows XP Professional help that refer to things that are completely incorrect, having been changed in the update of Service Pack 2. Unfortunately, the help files were not updated to give correct instructions or parameters for many of the changes.

It is necessary to hold the purveyors of a product accountable, for more than just minimal usability. In the case of Microsoft and others who want to be paid for their software, the public needs to insist on a complete on-line [local disk drive] help system, at the very least, while more preferable would be the complete on-line help and the inclusion of a complete soft bound paper manual. If the companies won’t supply it, don’t purchase the software. Companies are always whining about being able to get near list price for their efforts. Make it clear that a way to do this is by making outside help, either human or paper, unnecessary, by including comprehensive help.

For Linux, since their is usually no money involved, simply don’t download or use the distribution of additional software. Be vocal [let your fingers shout]. Let the authors know that either the software can become so easily used that no extra help is necessary, or the man pages need to be completed before the software is available for download. When there is money involved, it should be made clear that documentation that was complete would go a long way toward making the ‘x’- number-of-days free support calls go away.

[tags] ergonomics, usability, Apple MacIntosh, Microsoft, Windows, Linux, man pages, documentation, cottage industry [/tags]

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