Leave the debugging to the user!

Today I was writing a final paper in Microsoft Word on my laptop. It was really light-duty… Just a word processor open, nothing crazy working in the background. All of a sudden, I get a message that Windows Sidebar had crashed and was “gathering more information.” About five minutes later, I got this dialog:

Really? You want me to try and guess which gadget caused the crash, and that’s your best way of resolving the issue? I wasn’t even doing anything with Windows Sidebar, it just crashed in the background as I tapped away some commentary on 17th century Spanish poetry.

Recently I’ve become really anal about user interfaces. It has to Just Make Sense to any old user. I believe that about 70% of the confusion that people face with technology are due to user interfaces that are more complicated than necessary.

In terms of computer desktop environments, the Mac has always had the upper hand in this arena. It’s easier to understand if you have one button on the mouse, one button to close the window and program, and minimal menus and dialogs that hide settings. Windows and the major Linux GUIs have come up short of this for a long time, and it makes sense – the system is written by technical people, and technical people think very differently from the average Joe. The trouble is, Joe has to be able to use the $400 operating system that you want him or his boss to buy.

Things have gotten a little better. The GNOME Desktop is making serious headway on making a truly easy and user-friendly user interface for Linux / UNIX systems. Windows Vista minimizes a lot of the nonsense that has confused 93% of the market since 1995, and Microsoft is planning a complete rebuild of their operating system in 2009 – say goodbye to the taskbar and Start menu, kiddies.

I definitely would like to learn more about the psychology of the average computer user.  I hope that as I get more in depth with the technical layers of software, that I don’t lose touch with what makes sense to normal people.