Warning: The software you are installing does not match your mental model

This morning I talked to my dad. After a few minutes of polite small talk, I heard the 10 little words I have come to dread: “I had some problems with my computer the other day.” The video card on his laptop had died. The screen was just black. He has a Dell Vostro, so he called Dell Technical Support. They sent a contractor technician out; with a motherboard. The technician, having no real qualifications other than the need for a job; and no real training other than how to fill out the repair paperwork, installed the motherboard. Three days later he returned with the video card the computer actually needed, and the computer started again.

At this point, the following conversation ensued:

Dad: When I started the computer I got an error message

Me: What did the message say?

Dad: How should I know? It was written for “people” like you. I didn’t understand a word of it. It just said something about some software not working and it should be reinstalled

Me: Which software?

Dad: I don’t know. I told you, I didn’t understand it.

Me: So what did you do?

Dad: I figured it must have been Windows. Windows never works properly, so that made sense. I thought if I reinstalled Windows it would all work.

Me: And…?

Dad: Now Office doesn’t work.

Me: When you say “reinstalled Windows” did you do an in-place upgrade?

Dad: Can you restate that again in Human?

Me: Did you upgrade Windows?

Dad: No, the upgrade option was grayed out.

At this point, if, like me, you are a cubicle-dwelling, bespectacled nerd with the social skills of a turnip you know exactly what happened. He created a new side-by-side installation of Windows. Sure enough, in the C:\Windows.Old folder were his old Users folder, his old Windows folder, his Program Files folder, and all the other contents of his hard drive. I pointed this out to him to explain what happened.

This is when Dad drew the completely logical assumption: “OK, so if I just copy the Microsoft Office folder from there to C:\Program Files it will work?”

No. It won’t. It would if software were designed for the humans that actually use it. Unfortunately, it is not. It is designed by and for the same people: cubicle-dwelling bespectacled nerds with the social skills of turnips; people who have never spent any significant time interacting with humans, and who have never met any of the real users who will use the products they design. If we had actually met and interacted at length with real people at any point over the past 15 years, we probably would have realized already that designing a “program” that consists of 3,829 files, spread over 60 folders, is not how people expect it to work. That, by the way, is not a random figure. It is the number of files and folders in C:\Program Files\Microsoft Office on my laptop. Lest you were now to say that someone else knows better, iTunes vomits 2,718 files over 1064 folders, in two different hierarchies. Why don’t you try to move either to your cavernous external hard drive to save space and see how well that works?

Is it that my dad was being illogical? No. Moving the Office folder would indeed be incredibly logical; totally rational in fact. If you bought a new file cabinet, you could easily take the files out of the old file cabinet, put them in the new one, and they actually still remain readable! You could even take one of your old pens, scribble a note on them in the process, and a year later you can read the note! Amazing that ain’t it? If file cabinets were computers you certainly could try to remove the file from the computer. It would prompt you with a dialog asking if you really wanted to do that, once per character on the page. Once you accepted the prompts, you could insert the file into the new cabinet. When you tried to read it, however, you would find that the ink fell onto the floor between the two file cabinets. The magic fixative that keeps the ink on the paper works only as long as the paper stays in the old file cabinet.

We have a mental model consisting of physical, tangible things. There is a school of thought in Cognitive Science that believes the basic wiring of the human brain was forged in caves. Our brains were designed to address the biggest concerns of the day: evading the saber-toothed cat, spearing a wooly mammoth for dinner, and, for at least half the population, clubbing a suitable mate to drag home to the cave. (Presumably, the other half of the population lived in fear of getting clubbed and dragged away). Our brains were not exactly wired to understand the convoluted product management decisions that resulted in almost four thousand files and thousands of directories. And they certainly were not wired to understand that all those files and directories are utterly useless without the settings, which are stored elsewhere – in a place that does not really exist – and are joined to the file system manifestation of the software only in the very loosest sense of the word.

 Every time I boot Windows these days – and especially Windows 7 – I feel like the software is designed to be some kind of punishment. It’s meant to exact revenge on us for the designers being bullied in elementary school. So much of the software we software engineers design feels vindictive, counter-intuitive, and illogical. When the users finally figure out basic interaction styles, we change it all. When people finally learn that you can click on things on the quick launch menu to start them, we get the bastardized task bar in Windows 7 that only activates existing copies. When we finally figure out how to make find things on the start menu it becomes polluted with several hundred useless icons like iSCSI Initiator. Rather than features to make it easy to use, we bloat software up with new features because that’s what the computer journalists look for. I keep hoping for a release of a major piece of software that just works; that is elegant, that shows thoughtfulness in how the software was plumbed together, and that is designed from the ground up not to add new features but to be intuitive to the poor people who have to use it. Unfortunately, I never will. “Intuitive”, “elegant”, and “just works” are words you never see in computer journals, except maybe in Macworld. 

Sometimes I feel like the only piece of software ever designed to work EXACTLY the way its intended users expected it to work is Solitaire. Predictably, my sources tell me that Microsoft laid off the guy who wrote it in May.

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