Computer illiteracy

I hate illiterate elevators.  I know what buttons labelled “Open Door” and “Close Door” mean.  I have trouble figuring out what two isosceles triangles with their bases towards a vertical line means, as opposed to two isosceles triangles with their vertices towards a vertical line, especially if someone is running for the elevator.  (Particularly when elevator designers insist on making the markings on the buttons chrome on chrome.)  (If I didn’t hold the elevator door for you, that’s why.)

Back when I was doing a lot of computer support and “hands-on” training I developed Slade’s Law of Computer Literacy: There is no such thing as computer illiteracy, only illiteracy itself.

Generally speaking, when I had to help someone who was frustrated because a) the computer wouldn’t do what they wanted, or b) they couldn’t understand what the computer wanted, the answer was right on the screen.  “You must enter user number to proceed.”  “Please indicate you have understood by pressing `Y.’”  “Press any key to continue.”

Windows 7 is going the illiterate elevator route.  Where the buttons on the XP taskbar had a small icon next to the name of the program or file that was open, the Win7 taskbar just has icons.  Of course, if you hover over the icon button, you get all the active windows of that program laid out for you, and the files or titles are given there.  But that doesn’t give me the quick access to exactly the window I wanted anymore.  There is an intermediate step.

(I find this is affecting my operation of the computer in unexpected ways.  I’m using the mouse more, and keyboard shortcuts less, since I have to use the mouse so much for other things.)

Of course, this is all in the name of ease-of-use.  And I dare say that the vast majority of users like it this way, and I’m an old command-line dinosaur who can’t adapt to change.

But I’ve always noted that convenience and hiding-stuff-from-the-user-for-their-own-good generally leads to security problems at some point.

  • Phil

    Forget the elevator, take a look at a mobile phone!

    On one side, a glyph representing an (old-style, the design gods are ironic) telephone handset, and on the other side, a similar symbol with dot in parenthesis underneath it.

    I haven’t a clue what those symbols mean, nor why the designers thought that they’d be meaningful representations.


  • Rob Nicholls

    WIndows 7 does give you the option to display the title next to the icon though; it just isn’t the default setting. Doesn’t XP group things by default?

    Under Taskbar and Start Menu Properties there’s a drop down list for Taskbar buttons and selecting Never combine will give you something similar to the XP taskbar you desire.

    I agree that grouping might not be useful if you have a lot of similar open windows, but hiding the label can be useful if you have a large number of different applications open. Microsoft presumably are trying to balance the clean look of Windows with ease of use (big buttons are probably easier than thin strips if you’re using a touchscreen), and might not always get the default setting right, especially as usage changes over time (much wider range of resolutions to support, including widescreen ratios; rise in use of tablets and touchscreen hardware).