Point, Click, and Drool!

When reading discussions about Unix versus Windows versus Mac, I often hear people complain about the Point, Click, and Drool user interface. This is usually directed at the Mac, but I've heard it refer to Windows and even KDE before. These people imply (or sometimes simply state) that powerful computers are hard to use and that these easy to use computers are for mindnumbingly stupid people who can't be trusted with pencils, much less normal computers.

This belief is predicated on two core postulates:

  1. That ease of use and power are inversely proportional(it's not)
  2. and

  3. If something is too hard to use it's because the user is stupid.

I bring this up because it pervades more than just the OS wars. Many people, many programmers included, feel this way, and it is often used to disparage usability efforts, sometimes subconciously. Dispite disagreeing with this mentality, I completely understand it. And that's because I used to believe it too..

It was my sophomore year. I was a young computer science student, eager to program anything. I hacked on my then ancient 286 box, playing with cool windows utilities and dos apps. By the end of the year I had saved up enough to buy a 486SX and start playing with Linux. I was in geeky heaven. I know how to do lots of cool things with brain power alone, telling all others that if they couldn't figure out how to use a computer then maybe they were better of not using one. Computers were for computer experts. Sure, most people could get buy with Windows or a Mac, but they weren't using the true power of the computer and never would. I was pretty smug.

Then something happened. I became a user assistant in a computer lab. I had to help students when their inboxes were locked and machines couldn't print. I had to fix all of the annoying little things that go wrong with computers. The things I never deal with either because I unconciously avoid them or I unconciously fix them.

The thing is, I couldn't chalk their difficulties up to stupidity. These were all intelligent students who had to pass the same stringent requirements to get in to school that I did. It was simply that they weren't in to computers. Pretty much by definition, since anyone who was truly a computer freak like me would have their own computer and not need to be in a lab using the free ones. These people were all very smart, but were doing other things with their talents besides learn how to mess with computer. They could have learned, but they all had better things to do with their time.

This was a big wakeup call for me. My entire perception of computers turned around. Computers are here to serve man, not the other way around. If a computer system is hard to use then it must be the fault of the computer, not the user. That was the quarter I switched my specialization to GVU: Graphics, Visualization, and Usability.

So to the people who complain about Point, Click and Drool, remember that the people who want those systems are the people who are experts at something else, like car mechanics and heart surgeons. People with better things to do than deal with my crummy user interface.

In my opinion, the best computer program is not the one that is so incredibly powerful, but the one that is so easy to use, is simply disappears.

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Posted December 1st, 2003

Tagged: philosophy ux java.net