Help! How many windows are open?!?

Every other month or so, I encounter a PC user that I just want to help… desperately. Generally, though, these users have so little computing foundation that I would need a week in a classroom (or in the case of The Ultimate PC Primer, fifteen chapters!) to clear up the misunderstandings and lay the correct foundation.

A while back I was part of a team conducting some “field tests” of new software. We were showing some concepts for improving workflow and soliciting input from the existing users. Part of our work was to see how each user currently used his/her system. During a chat with one of these users I observed an amazing sight: somewhere between 20 to 30 Web browser windows open at the same time, most of which were pages from the same site.

Now, I like my browser windows. I usually have many open at the same time, but the interesting thing was that this user didn’t realize they were open at all. Why? She was using Windows XP, so all the browser windows were grouped together on the taskbar. It looked like one program to her. She obviously had visited many Web sites throughout the day, resulting in new browser windows being opened. But she never closed any of them, apparently because she wasn’t aware that they were still open. Out of sight… out of mind… which is how that feature is supposed to work.

Now that feature is good if you know how it works, but in my experience, many newer users don’t. In fact, this isn’t the first time I’ve happened across users drowning in open windows (or files) thanks to this feature in Windows XP. (Just in the past two weeks I sat in a consultation meeting with a client stating her users surely wouldn’t be able to switch from window to window successfully if the web application opened multiple documents for reference.) Inevitably, these users can’t find anything (or forget the window with the page they seek is already open, resulting in windows not coming to the foreground) and conclude this frustrating experience is one of the following:

  1. Their fault, because they’re stupid.
  2. The computer’s fault, because computers are stupid.
  3. The Web site/application designer’s fault, because apparently the designer is stupid, lazy and/or finds perverse pleasure in intentionally frustrating users.

As funny as those options might be to consider, I truly believe none of them is correct. Most users aren’t stupid. (I’m sure there are some, but most users I encounter are just honestly a little confused and need a good explanation.) Computers only do as they’re programmed, and though designers can vary in quality & skill, they generally follow trends in interface design rather than going “renegade.”

My conclusion: there is clearly a breakdown in users’ understanding of computing technology. They don’t know what they’re using. Sound familiar? If not, click Why Explain Technology at the top of the page. It’s why this blog — and The Ultimate PC Primer — exists.

2 Responses to Help! How many windows are open?!?

  1. Abbey says:

    Sad but true… and let’s not even imagine how bad it would be if we were allowed to use *gasp* tabbed browsing. 🙂

  2. Ben K says:

    Indeed, Abbey. Adding the tabbed interface to Web browsing complicates things for most users. The organizational concept, however, has not changed. On a collection of tabs in one program, on a collection of windows in the taskbar, or as a list of windows within one program (browser) on the taskbar, it’s still the same concept. With all three interfaces to the concept out in the wild, it can be difficult to teach new users how to understand their browsing experience, especially when this concept differs from the “usual” program/window management concepts.

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