VSJ – December 2004 – Sounding Board

Robin Jones wonders whether we’ve been barking up the wrong tree for a couple of decades.

A recent Forrester Research survey suggested that IT training is generally inadequate. My first reaction to this was to wonder if we would ever see a survey concluding that training in any discipline was OK.

In the days when I wrote a lot of IBM 360 Assembler, we used to dream about an (unimplemented) op-code, DWIT (Do What I’m Thinking). I often wonder if employers take a similar view of their staff. “If they don’t do what I’m thinking, they can’t have been trained properly.”

Be that as it may, the report set me thinking in a somewhat tangential direction. Many years ago, I ran a familiarisation session for a group of word processor operators who were upgrading to a new package. (WordStar 3.3, since you ask; I’ve remarked in these columns before on the length of my teeth.) This didn’t take long because they were all familiar with the basics and merely needed to be pointed at new features, short cuts and so on. And then I noticed that, whenever any of them wanted to insert text, they would go into Overwrite mode and rewrite the remainder of the paragraph. I pointed out that they were consequently performing far more key depressions than necessary and their response was, “Ah, but we’re trained typists, so we can do it very quickly”.

I puzzled over this for some time before realising that the problem was exactly that they were trained typists. They saw the display as a piece of paper and text as type on that paper. Since typed text does not reformat itself on paper, it genuinely worried them when it did so on the screen. Ergo, they didn’t let it. That’s why they stayed in Overwrite mode. The system then behaved like the model they’d chosen for it. And that was more important to them than the obvious resulting inefficiency.

Now before we all start chuckling about technically incompetent users, my contention is that most of us do similar things and, indeed, that the entire IT industry has spent the last twenty years pandering to such processes. After all, what’s a GUI but a ‘human’ model of a file management system? The more closely it apparently resembles an existing model – filing cabinets, trash cans, shredders – the more user friendly it is, goes the argument. But as soon as we try to do something that could only be done in the real world by trawling through all the files making changes as necessary, we are (pretty much) reduced to doing the same thing with the GUI. Of course, you and I wouldn’t do that. We’d write a piece of code. But that simply confirms that the GUI isn’t man enough for the job. So we end up with a half-capable tool because of the way we’ve defined its model.

It’s interesting that nobody, at the turn of the 20th century, said, “These automobile thingies will have to look like horses or the public won’t buy them. And you’ll change gear by hitting a bulge shaped like a horse’s behind with a whip.” On the contrary, they said, “You’re going to have to learn how to drive and it’s like nothing you’ve done before.”

The late and much-lamented Douglas Adams wrote a computer game he described as ‘user mendacious’. Maybe we should allow more mendacity in the interests of efficiency.

[Something you’d like to get off your chest? Email me (Robin Jones) at eo@iap.org.uk.]

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