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March 94 - Editor's Letter

Editor's Letter


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Dear Readers,

We're excited to bring you, in this issue, develop's first Newton article. Even if you're not set up for Newton development, you may find this article of interest. But it's the article on zooming windows that inspired this editorial. The subject is user interface annoyances: those cases where the application doesn't quite do what the user expects it to -- as when a window zooms to an odd location -- and the user has to adjust for it. So what's the big deal? Well, it all adds up. Over time, the harm to the user from compensating for these problems can be physical as well as mental. You'll end up with a customer who is suffering in more ways than one.

As Joan Stigliani puts it in her forthcoming book, High-Tech Health: The Computer User's Survival Guide: "Software can make you work hard and contribute to overuse if it requires a lot of mouse use -- clicking and dragging, scrolling, moving the cursor back and forth across the screen -- or a lot of complex key sequences or excessive keying. Software that is difficult or frustrating to use can increase stress and tension." This especially struck a chord with me, since I suffer from tendinitis caused by excessive keying and mousing. So I'm going to take advantage of this opportunity to vent my frustration (isn't that what editorials are for?). Mainly, I hope to have at least some small influence on how you design the interface for your applications in the future.

Why do so many applications lack common sense? Why, for example, shouldn't Print or Save work on my frontmost document even if the active window happens to be a dialog box? Why can't I just type Command-F followed by text to be found rather than first have to select the text that the application (for some odd reason) didn't choose to highlight in the Find dialog? Why, even on my two-page monitor, do I have to resize a teeny window for every piece of e-mail I receive, or read a mere eight lines at a time, scrolling repeatedly (excessively) to get to the end? Why, when I cut a double-clicked word and then paste it, do so few applications add spaces intelligently?

The list of user interface superfluities goes on and on; these are only the problems I encounter most frequently each day. Please, give my hands (and my mind) a break! If I may make a few suggestions:

  • Don't blindly follow what other applications have done: maybe they didn't think it through well enough. There's a place for guidelines and precedents, but don't totally disregard common sense.
  • Use the application yourself for real tasks until you're blue in the face. Be honest; what bugs you about it? Your users will be even less tolerant.
  • Do extensive user testing before first ship, of course -- but even after you ship, solicit feedback and incorporate it into the next release. Be sure to get feedback from experienced users, not just first-timers.
  • Beware of creeping featurism: fix problems your testers or customers have with current features before adding new ones.

These suggestions are based on my own experience as the user manual writer and ad hoc product manager for the first version of the WriteNow application. John Anderson, one of the authors of WriteNow, says he thinks interface problems stem from software being too hard to write (something his next product will address) and from the related problem of software teams being too large. With many specialized programmers on a project, no one person focuses on the overall picture well enough to make the requisite intelligent decisions about the interface. Given a large team, a good product manager can make all the difference in the world. Look for someone both knowledgeable about the market and able to grasp the technical issues. As I noted about technical writing in an earlier editorial, product management isn't a job that just any smart person can do, or that CEOs or VPs should tackle in their spare time.

So I guess the moral is that more is not always better -- not when it comes to features in an application or programmers on a project, and certainly not when it comes to keystrokes and mouse clicks in an interface. Please, keep it clean.

Caroline Rose Editor

CAROLINE ROSE (AppleLink CROSE) started writing and programming at a company called Tymshare, where she thought at first that the terminal was the computer. (She was stunned to learn it occupied a huge room in another building.) By the time computers were the size of terminals, Caroline was on her way to Apple to write Inside Macintosh. She digressed to spend five years at NeXT, where she managed the Publications group, but returned to the Apple fold to edit develop. Caroline owes her love of the printed word to her father, who worked for the New York Daily News for over 50 years. There was no greater thrill as a child than to go to the office with him and see the copy desks, darkrooms, printing presses -- and, of course, the editors. She'd like to take this opportunity to say thanks, Dad, and Happy 85th Birthday!*

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