Sunday, September 23, 2007

Blame the User

“Oh, come on,” Richard said quietly to himself.

“Sorry?” Bill, or Bob, or whatever lifted his head from behind Richard’s monitor.

“Sorry, not you,” Richard said. “It’s this stupid magazine. Everyone’s blaming the financial industry for the subprime mess, but what about the home buyers? Why doesn’t anyone make them take responsibility for signing up for loans they couldn’t repay?”

“Good point, sir.” Bob or Bill put his head back down and tapped some more keys.

“How much longer, anyway?” said Richard.

“It’ll be another hour or so. Um, did you change any of the settings on your anti-spyware utility?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe. It was running real slow so I changed a bunch of settings in various places until it sped up. Why?”

Bill or Bob sighed. “Well, you’ve got a major spyware infestation, including several stealth keyloggers installed by Trojans. They’ve probably captured all your passwords and account settings. Do you access the company trading accounts from this machine?”

“Sure, I have to. So, what do you have to do?”

“Well, sir, you should probably make sure there haven’t been any unauthorized transactions from your account. In the short term, I can get you up and running but I’ll have to reformat your drive and reinstall Windows. You’ll lose all your files, but your computer will be up again. I may be able to restore your files from backup but I’ll have to make sure they’re clean.”

“OK. Whatever.” Richard went back to his reading while his computer made the Windows shutdown and startup noises several times in a row. Finally, he folded the magazine and hurled it across the room, neatly hitting the rim of his wastebasket and knocking it over. “Damn. You’d think people would know better than to sign false income statements. I just don’t get it.”

He pondered for a few more minutes. Then, “If people aren’t going to be responsible, how do you keep it from happening again?”

Bob or Bill looked up and hesitated for a moment. “Well, sir, if it were up to me, I wouldn’t let anyone use a computer unless they knew what they were doing.”

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Feature Creep

I've often heard users and designers bemoan "feature creep" and express the wish that manufacturers would limit the number of features supported by their products in order to make them more simple to use. While I sympathize with the goal, I don't think that avoiding feature creep is necessarily the solution.

Consider the iPod. A recent issue of MIT's Technology Review magazine (May 2007) focused on design, and frequently held up the iPod as a design ideal. Don Norman, speaking of Apple in general, stated, "The hardest part of design, especially consumer electronics, is keeping features out." Mark Rolston, senior vice president of creative at Frog Design, said, "The most fundamental thing about Apple that's interesting to me is that they're just as smart about what they don't do. Great products can be made more beautiful by omitting things."

So, back to the iPod. It originally began life as a music player. Along the way, it added a calendar, contacts, notes, alarm clocks, world clocks, stopwatch, audiobooks, picture viewer, video, podcasts, and games, and it can be used as an external hard drive, even a bootable one for an OS X machine. The iPod Touch adds internet surfing, a You Tube viewer, online access to the iTunes music store, and the ability to buy whatever song you're currently hearing at Starbuck's.

Hmmm... Isn't this the very definition of feature creep?

And yet, the iPod remains beloved, an icon of good design. And very deservedly so.

Because what makes the iPod easy to use is not feature restraint, but rather the fact that all of its many features work the same way. The user need only learn one general rule about how the interface works and can apply that rule to pretty much every function.

So perhaps the trick isn't in avoiding feature creep, but rather in avoiding "rule creep".