Michael Riddle's Thoughts » Blog Archive » Tool transparency

Tool transparency

paper1saI consider a pencil and paper to be the strongest competitor I have. Why? Because it has incredible tool transparency. When I use it, I do not have to think about the tool. My mind remains on my thoughts. If I’m taking notes, I’m not thinking about dialog boxes, the “right” order to do things, icons, etc. I can write without looking. When I need to represent relationships, I can draw them. Free-form. When I talk about tool transparency, it is this ability to keep my thoughts on what I’m doing, rather than what I am using to do it, that I call tool transparency.

A pencil disappears. Of course, we tend to forget the steep learning curve: It took us a few years to go from crayons that would not stay inside the outlines to (hopefully) readable penmanship and clear sketching.

Apple is famous for it’s systems being usable. Now there are things that I find really mysterious. I almost took my first G5 back to the store because, as a Windows geek, I didn’t realize that you opened the CD-ROM drive with a keyboard key that suggests “up” to me. Clarity, like beauty, is in the eye of the beholder. What is obvious to one person is mud to another.

As an example, my wife uses a Mac for email. She is a sharp lady, and the other agents in her office looked to her for help with computers. But when there is a problem sending an email, it automatically sends her work to another folder. ie: one of the lines of text on the left side. She does not see these as folders, and since she did not put it there, she worries that it disappeared.

Now we can say the tri-pane presentation of most email clients is “obvious”, but its like that pencil – we forget the time we put in until such things became obvious. We can no longer remember what our technical world looks like to someone who does not love it for its own sake, but just wants to get a job done. Putting our clients first means making things work the way they think, not the way we’d like them to think.

One of the joys of working on software, as opposed to hardware, is that we can accommodate different viewpoints. But too often, we pick the easy way out, and accommodate viewpoints that closely match our own. In doing so, we take off the table the possibility of making good tools for a very large number of people.

Several years ago, Microsoft came under strong criticism and some ridicule for a program called “Bob”. This was like the office paper clip on steroids, and it did look pretty annoying. But at least they were trying to approach things from a different perspective, and make something that non-computer types might find usable. It might have been a success if they’d gotten some of the better game design and graphics-artists involved.

The point I’d like you to consider is: What can we do to make our products transparent to our clients? Let’s not try to impress them with a 200-command, 100-icon, dialog based monster that will take them weeks to master. Let’s make it looks so simple that its seems that there is nothing there – “Where’s the beef?”.

This entry (Permalink) was posted on Thursday, October 1st, 2009 at 5:59 pm and is filed under Uncategorized. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

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