Is There a Way to Simplify the Personal Computer?

January 27th, 2009

As I’ve said on many occasions, most of what you and I do these days on our Macs harkens back to 1984, when the first all-in-one Apple Macintosh appeared. As a matter of fact, this reminds me of the time I wrote a book about Mac OS X, back in 2001, where I presented screen shots of that first Mac’s desktop, compared to the cool, liquid Aqua desktop.

Sure, the newer version was prettier, with a shaded dimensionality that has been softened over the years, but the fundamentals were the same. Point and click and drag and drop, and there you go. It was so familiar that Microsoft was able to crib the Mac’s interface and convince lots of people there wasn’t a dime’s worth of difference.

But I’m not about to replay the operating system wars right now. I think Microsoft’s poor decisions in recent years have caused serious problems for the company that the state of the economy has only compounded. Let’s leave it at that.

What most concerns me, though, is the fact that many Mac users still have a whale of a time getting accustomed to some of the basics. A typical example might be an Open or Save dialog. Rather than using the former to open a document within an application, I realize some of you still go to the desktop and double click on the file.

Indeed, when I try to help people navigate through the file system on the phone, I’ll utter those fateful words, “Choose Open from the File menu,” and have it fall on deaf ears. Even though some of these people may have been using Macs for years, they haven’t a clue what I’m talking about, and that has nothing to do with their intelligence. It’s all about the fact that not everything about the graphical interface of a personal computer is as intuitive as Apple would have us believe.

More recently, I was helping a client move to a new email system. He wanted a way to easily synchronize his messages at home and the office without going through hoops. So I transitioned him from a POP account to an IMAP account. The latter, of course, is an email protocol that stores all your messages on the server so that you can retrieve them from a desktop email application, or a Web-based one, and be able to see the very same messages, in all of your mailbox folders.

When I first set up the account for him, I moved all of his stored messages to the new server, a simple matter of drag and drop, followed by a long wait while thousands of messages were transferred. I mistakenly thought this to be a simple process, although I explained it to him several times, along with the process of creating new mailbox folders in Apple Mail and how they’d synchronize with his online mailboxes.

A few weeks later, as the result of a server change, I sent him detailed instructions on switching the incoming and outgoing mail servers in his Account preferences in Mail. This is a process that should take all of a minute or so to accomplish. Once you OK the Save function, the contents of the mailbox are regenerated upon hookup to the new server (where I had previously migrated all his messages online).

There was one further change, and again I presumed this to be a matter of little consequence, and went on with my business, until I got a frantic call from the client that he couldn’t find some of his email.

Well, after a little back and forth conversation, it appeared that, rather than just change the settings for his email account, he just created new ones. At the end of the day, he had three separate accounts, and because of his fiddling around with the contents of his various mailboxes, none of them truly reflected his current repertoire of messages.

I will, of course, be going to his office this week to sort out this mess.

Now maybe it was all my fault. Perhaps I just didn’t sufficiently explain what should have been a fairly easy process, but, no, I reviewed the steps, compared them to some of the online instruction pages covering similar topics, and I couldn’t find any serious lapses.

The client is a college graduate, and a gifted designer. You just know from talking with him for a while that he is quite an intelligent fellow, yet it’s also true that he has long been confounded by many of the common conventions of the Mac OS’s user interface.

I expect he’s not alone, and that he copes with the situation because there is simply no better, more efficient method for him to do his work.

His problems aren’t unusual either, so I often wonder if Apple or some other company might take stock of the situation, find out what confuses the typical Mac or PC user, and fix the problems. This may require a total rethinking of the present state of the art in graphical user interfaces, and I wouldn’t begin to know how best to accomplish that task. If I did, I’d be raking in millions selling the technology, rather than just hoping someone might produce it.

What do you think, gentle reader? Is the Mac sufficiently simple for you to use as it is, or does Apple need to make some serious changes? Would a better, more proactive Help system do the trick? Or should we be tossing out the baby with the bath water and starting anew?

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4 Responses to “Is There a Way to Simplify the Personal Computer?”

  1. rwahrens says:

    I do tech support for the Feds (slow day, with the ice and all), and I have this problem all the time.

    Otherwise smart people, sometimes brilliant in their own field, are often just complete klutzes on a computer. It isn’t that the computer is bad, or wrong, or hard to use, the issue is that they just don’t THINK the same way us geeks do. They don’t expect it to work the way it does.

    I can tell them over and over again how to complete a simple task, and they’ll write it all down, laboriously, in their notes – and a week later I get the same call for help.

    My wife refuses to even try. She says, “When I can just TELL it to do what I want, THEN I’ll start using it! Till then, you can do it.”

    Might as well try to stop a tsunami.

  2. Terry McCune says:

    Boyoboy Gene
    When you write, it’s as if you’d been shadowing me for the past 24 hours. A fellow retired teacher has been watching me create slideshows and DVD’s on my Macbook. He had to have one. His home computer (a Dell) is ruled by his (comparatively) computer-savvy wife.
    I got him a refurbished Macbook: his first computer. In his day, this gentleman has been an underground miner, a professional hockey player, a bow hunter, a backcountry pilot, a carpenter, a French teacher, etc., etc. Stupid he ain’t.
    “How hard to I have to push the disc to get it to go in?”
    “Why are there 3 buttons to control sound?” Mute, louder, softer
    “Why are there so many ways to do the same thing?”
    “Why can’t I get my email, even if I can’t remember my password?”
    “Will this hurt the computer?” Loading and then trashing data.

    and my favorite “Where did that go when you put it away?” said every time I close something or the screen changes.
    Now, don’t get the idea I’m not enjoying this. I’m looking at myself about 20 years ago, agog in the wonder of a new technology. His almost childlike fascination at everything is very rewarding to an old- school educator.
    But we’re both paper trained. “Where’s the book, so I can read up on it?” I can see why the “dummy” series is earning a fortune. The “Teach Yourself Visually” is a close second.
    I’ve pointed him to many online resources, but getting online consistently and navigating well and saving bookmarks is a talent in itself.
    It’s all worth it though. I scanned a box of family photos dating back to 1902 for him and created a slide show set to music. He was overcome by emotion.
    He’s going to get a photo scanner. My free time for the next little while is spoken for.

    So yes, I think things could be simpler.

    Please don’t ever stop writing; you are a beacon of sanity.

  3. gopher says:

    Technical expertise aside, I think a lot of it has to do with where people choose to spend their free time. Note for instance how many men are more experts at posting to facebook than finding real live friends, and see the reverse is true with women in a family where both man and woman have strong expertise. Now this is not always the case, but you have to wonder, if in order to get more computer savvy one has to be experienced at the computer and choose to make it their place to spend free time. Book groups on the whole seem to be mainly women. My fiance noticed this interesting discrepancy, even though she is a frequent poster to her facebook account. She is having difficulty getting her sister, and her mother on facebook, my mother isn’t on facebook, and yet my father is, my niece who is 16 is, but my sister isn’t. All these people have the wherewithall to be part of it, but it says something about our technical field that on the whole, some people just don’t get what is so exciting about being in the computer field, and would much rather spend time in real life. Expertise comes because of experience. So suffice it to say, a lot of people see computers as a tool, but don’t have the time or inclination to discover every single knife in their swiss army knife that the computer is. If the interface were designed by people who have no computer knowledge, maybe computers would attract more people!

  4. John says:

    Interesting replies to comment on, but that would be a bit involved at this time.

    As far as simplifying computer use is concerned, I think any difficulties (or ease of use) that most (non-tech oriented) people have is due to an unwillingness (or willingness) to learn. I think each of the three replies above and my own personal experience dealing with others, testifies to this. My wife, in particular, although she uses a Mac every day, when she gets frustrated often makes comments similar to that of rwahrens’ wife.

    Which frustrates me.

    I think that if one is going to use something, then one is obligated to learn… and that means also learning its limitations.

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