I remember voicing a complaint in my Historical Foundations of Rhetoric class several years ago that all this “rhetoric stuff” was making me cynical (well, even more so than I naturally am). I felt like it was leading me to over-analyze everything and to think that everyone had hidden agendas and manipulative motives.
Well, I’m experiencing a related reaction toward the texts I’ve been reading about user experience and user-centered design practices. Although instead of becoming even more cynical (I think I’ve hit my ceiling), I’m just becoming hyper-aware of every little error message, dialogue box, and confusing task or setting on every single piece of technology I use.
For example, my laptop randomly shutdown and restarted itself several moments ago. When it rebooted, all of the applications I had open in the previous session opened again, along with all of their documents, files, and folders. Convenient.
When Google Chrome re-opened, I was prompted with a message that asked me if I’d like to retore all the tabs that were open before the reboot.
Handy, because I have a bad habit of keeping about 30 tabs open all at once–my 1102 course website, an article I began reading last night, amazon.com, a few random blogs, information about an upcoming conference, a recipe I plan to make over the weekend… This clearly doesn’t speak well of my task management skills and my ability to focus on one thing at a time.
B.C. (“Before Chrome”), I would have languished over the lost tabs and would have started digging through my browser’s history to find them again (the ones I could remember, anyway). I have to hand it to Google–this auto-recovery thing is rather nice.
I also received this dialogue box when I opened Microsoft Word:
Well, that’s awfully nice of you, Word, to let me know that I made some sort of change to the Normal template that wasn’t saved when my computer rebooted. But, for the life of me, I don’t recall ever making any changes!
Clearly, Word thinks I need to save these changes, and highlights the “Yes” option in a very appealing (and convincing) shade of blue. But if I don’t know what those changes are… why would I want to save them? What if I made those changes accidentally? And what the heck is a “Normal” template? Will saving these changes make my template “Abnormal?” How would I revert back to the original “Normal” template?
Okay, I’ll admit that I’m purposely blowing things a bit out of proportion for the sake of this post. At least Word did tell me that the Normal template is used as the default format for new documents. That kind of helps. But what does this mean exactly? If Word can tell me that there are “unsaved changes,” can’t it list what those changes are? Or show me a picture that can help me identify those changes and understand how they will affect my future documents?
This all really reverts back to the sentiments referred to both in About Face and Designing the Obvious about how software applications should behave like a good friend:
A considerate friend wants to know more about you. He remembers your likes and dislikes so that he can please you in the future. Everyone appreciates being treated according to his or her own personal tastes. (Cooper, et al Kindle Locations 3208-3209).
In addition to designing software, I also, as you might guess, use software. And I, like many people (whether they realize it or not), tend to “hire” software the same way I would hire a person. I look for certain qualities, like a helpful nature, reliability, trustworthiness, and other things I’d expect to find in a good Boy Scout. (Hoekman Kindle Locations 255-258).
According to this model, software should exemplify the characteristics we most value in our good friends. It should be sensitive when we have needs, helpful when we might be unsure, and forgiving when we screw up.
So maybe I’m not critical. Maybe I just have high expectations of my “friends.”