Thursday, 29 November 2012

User interfaces and memes

Most people who use computers (and tablets) have very little technical knowledge. And most of them have only used one or two user interfaces.

People are of course conservative, which is why change is difficult.

Most people know how to use the classic windows interface – from 95 through NT, 2000, XP, Vista and 7 it became a meme – this is an interface and if I do that this will happen, so double clicking on a little picture starts an application, and there's a menu thing down at the left hand bottom corner.

Now people on the whole don't know windows, they know how to do particular tasks.

This meant that you could give someone who 'knew' XP a computer with a Linux distro like College linux and one they'd found a word processor ad so on they were happy – in the main because KDE 2 kind of looked like XP and things worked the same.

The same people tended to find xfce, as found in xbuntu, a step too far thought Mac users didn't have a lot of trouble adapting.

I'm basing this on real anecdotal experience – I've tried out both on na├»ve non-technical users with a reasonable degree of success.

The same people, on the whole, don't like Openbox or similar user interfaces like fluxbox - ' what do you mean I right-click on the desktop to open a menu ??'

And of course when we look at Ubuntu, which is what is most probably the desktop linux in widest use by non-technical users, the major complaint is about the Unity UI – not because it's difficult to use, it isn't, but because non technical people have difficulty applying past experience. It's just a little too different.

Macs of course are different, but are consistent across the range. iOS is again consistent across iPads and iPhones. Android is close enough to allow you to transfer skills – just like XP and KDE2. In fact the move to smartphones has made the user experience consistent across models, and we now differentiate phones on capabilities, in much the same way we differentiate laptops disk vs memory vs weight, and actually we know they are all much the same.

Compare this to a few years ago, when each phone manufacturer had their own menu system and called things by different names - changing or upgrading your phone was a major challenge.

So we can say there are three user interface memes out there – the Mac meme, the tablet meme and the XP meme.

And then we come to Windows 8.

Now I havn't used Windows 8 but I've seen enough screen shots to know it looks different. How different I don't know but it looks different.

(Confession time – prior to writing this post someone from Microsoft did ask me if I'd had a chance to play with it – I was momentarily tempted to ask to borrow a Surface, but then decided that was a little too cheeky and anyway I'd like to do any usability tests on generic kit).

Looking different isn't bad for a tablet. After all chunky tiles kind of look like icons so tapping on them should work. On a touchscreen device with a keyboard you evolve a hybrid mix of swipes and keybourd commands – or at least that's my experience of using a no-name seven inch android tablet with a keyboard.
On a non-touchscreen laptop the experience will be different.

Remember that most people silo their experience and expect to transfer past laptop skills to the new environment, not either learn new skills or transfer tablet style skills.

So just like putting people in front of Openbox they're going to boggle. This is why people complain of no start menu in Windows 8.

People will of course learn new things. Judging by the number of MacBooks round campus compared to even two years ago, a lot of people have moved across from Windows.

My guess is not because of any inherent technical superiority on the part of OS X but because Macs are seen in some subjective way of being 'better' and thus it's worth moving your skills across and learning new things.

As I said above, people are conservative with regard to computers. They will only do something, like change or upgrade, if they perceive it has value. If I was Microsoft I'd be trying to work out how to sell Windows 8 as being cool rather than better.

Most people don't care if it's better as long as they can get their stuff done, but, if it's cool that's even better.

Apple is of course the classic example of being cool rather than better. In the mid nineties Apple as nearly broke. At the time I was doing a lot of IT procurement. The early old style CRT iMacs and iBooks looked distinctly poor in comparison to what you could get from the likes of Dell, Toshiba and Compaq. At the time I though the products were interesting, especially with OS X as a unix clone, but felt that they were a last twitch of the corpse, and if anything Linux might be the serious competitor.

Round about the same time I'd spent a lot of time on building Microsoft-lite environments, as a way of controlling or minimizing licensing costs by using alternative products, either as open source or commercial.

Given that experience and the fairly rich set of desktop applications, including business tools, that Linux came with, building an open source desktop seemed not an unreasonable idea, and if it hadn't been for the power of the Microsoft Office brand to the exclusion of all others, it might well have had legs. The lesson being that people won't transfer to another product if the product they're using has 90% of the market. They'll worry about compatibility and being different. Like I said, people are intensely conservative about desktop computing – they don't want to be guineapigs – they just want it to work for them

I was also wrong about Apple.

Apple came back from the dead by building a brand on being cool and being easy to use. If I was Microsoft I'd be studying how they did it, because in doing it, Apple established the OS X meme – and Microsoft needs to establish a Windows 8 meme ...

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