The Leopard Report: Overcoming Common User Problems

February 11th, 2006

When you live and work in a highly technical world, it’s easy to take things for granted. Take such common terms as the Finder and the Open dialog box. Elementary, my dear fellow Mac user, yet for millions out there who use Macs with reasonable flexibility, these terms are as foreign as calculus to a first grade student.

Doesn’t seem possible, does it? But it’s quite true, and you shouldn’t construe it as an insult against an entire class of people for whom such terms and features are elusive. The fact is that the people who don’t spend their days perusing sites like this have other things on their minds, perhaps of far greater importance.

To put this in perspective, for over a decade now, I’ve been a volunteer support person for the local Mac user group, AMUG. My phone number is listed in their magazine, and I do get calls from people who want help with problems on their Macs. Most of the questions are simple to solve over the phone, and involve simple setup situations, or just the need to understand why something doesn’t work as it should. I try to keep my responses as free of jargon as possible, because even the phrase “go to the Finder” may be answered by a “What’s that?” and similar responses.

As I said, I’m not attacking anyone’s intelligence. These people have other priorities, and learning each and every feature on their Macs isn’t one of them, and that includes the common functions many of us take for granted. It all goes to show a big disconnect between the assumptions that Apple and other computer companies make about their user base and the sad reality.

This is a pitch I’ve made before, but Apple has a terrific opportunity to change things with its next major Mac OS X release. Yes, I know there will be another 150 or 200 features, and that the ones with the highest level of marketability will be plastered all over Apple’s site and strongly emphasized in the ads. But will “easier to use” be among them? It doesn’t sound sexy enough, and it’s not something you’d count among your favorite features.

Consider Apple’s golden opportunity: After many years of stagnant sales and falling market share, more and more people are buying Macs. Chalk it up to the iPod phenomenon, or the fact that more and more people are becoming disgusted with the rampant problems affecting the Windows platform. Whether it’s the latest virus threat or the fact that many home and small business PCs are inundated with spyware doesn’t matter. These people are looking for something new, something better, and hoping that Apple will provide a solution.

This isn’t to say that using a Mac is necessarily difficult, but it’s not as easy as it should be. When some extremely talented authors need to write troubleshooting books containing hundreds of pages, it’s clear that the “computer for the rest of us” needs a little work to realize Steve Jobs’ vision of a PC appliance.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m not saying that Mac OS X is necessarily hard to use out of the box, or difficult to master if you are willing to expend the time and energy to learn the ropes. But you don’t need huge training manuals or problem solving guides for your TV set, even one of those high definition versions with multiple inputs and extensive menus for picture adjustments. And whenever you have to go to the command line in Mac OS X, it’s clear that something is missing, even if there is a shareware utility that puts a friendly face on the function.

So what is Apple to do? Well, providing thick manuals, as they used to do, isn’t the answer. You don’t have the time to read such things, and I don’t either; well, not anymore, although I try to struggle through a user guide when I review a product to understand all of the fine details. How about a training video? Well, Apple actually has a few, available for its .Mac members. You can learn about iLife ’06, Apple’s professional applications, or just the basics of your operating system. But the instructional presentations are basic, and the announcers I’ve heard need to go back to broadcasting school. Surely Apple can do better, much better.

What about having the best Apple trainer on the planet, Steve Jobs himself, record some training videos that will be supplied on DVD form with your new Mac? Add to that a collection of interactive videos that are combined with the help system. When you run into a problem getting your Mac up and running, why not have Steve help you find a solution?

Yes, pile on the features to sell product, but for Leopard, I do believe Apple ought to return to the basics, to make its computers as easy as possible to use. I shouldn’t have to respond to questions such as “What’s the Finder,” or “I never heard of an Open dialog box.” Something is missing.

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