Why it’s important to think outside the check box

April 28, 2011

Once again, I recently found myself in a consulting meeting, needing to explain the difference between check boxes and radio buttons. Those that follow my blog might ask, “Ben, why do you gripe about this so much?” So let me clarify why it’s important to think through this issue.

My issue is NOT about

1. expecting others to be able to describe computer technology correctly. (After all, the functionality of check boxes and radio buttons is retroactively obvious. Once you see the function of both explained side by side, it’s readily apparent what the differences are and why.) It has never been my desire to turn the general population into computer engineers, developers, or designers.

It’s only partially about

2. others being able to design appropriately — describing the appropriate interface element for the application — though this is crucially important. I have increasingly seen check boxes and radio buttons used interchangeably and the functionality behind them intentionally coded incorrectly, resulting in a radio button interface behaving like a set of check boxes and check boxes being leveraged like radio buttons. In fact, just a handful of weeks ago I was auditing some on-line training from a standard provider for that particular industry. All the exams were multiple-choice questions. The questions did not indicate if one response or multiple responses were required. Check boxes were used, yet most often, only one response was correct. But not always. Perhaps this was an intentional design choice. But having also just consulted with individuals designing a new website (who clearly did not know the difference and selected the wrong interface element), I can’t guarantee the choice was an informed one. In this case, had I not thought through the interface, applied my technology background, and then assessed the questions again, I might have failed the exam.

Foremost, my quandary is Read the rest of this entry »

Mouse on the screen!

April 21, 2011

Unfortunately, this isn’t a post about some fantastic new touchscreen technology. Nor is it about a rodent on my monitor, though that would be an amusing prank. (Remind me to try that one next April 1st.)

No, it’s a story a colleague in the training industry relayed to me about an enterprise effort to train food service employees. Apparently, new computer-based training was deployed to the field, and an executive reviewed the best and worst experiences those line-level employees had while using the new training. The worst thing reported? One learner tried putting the computer mouse on the screen to use it. In other words, being forced to use PC-based training revealed that the employee had no familiarity with what a mouse is for or how it works. None at all.

Now before you fall down laughing and start retelling stories about “cup holders” being broken by users, I want you to know this is certainly not the first time I’ve heard this sort of thing. During the 6.5 years I’ve spent writing my book, I have been told a number of similar stories. One friend mentioned how he just couldn’t get his mother to understand how to use a mouse. Another colleague who teaches basic computer skills at a community college said she’s seen an adult learner try to use a mouse as a foot pedal. A friend who used to be a teacher told me of an adult student who picked the mouse up off the desk to try to make the pointer on the screen move up. The list goes on and on.  These stories are part of what drove me to write a basic PC skills book. Many tend to assume lack of PC understanding is a “problem” that pertains to senior citizens only. (And oftentimes, the “problem” is assumed to be their problem… like some sort of ineptitude or deficiency.) But this is not an issue with age. “Old folks” are not the “problem.” In this fellow’s case, I’m guessing he simply never worked in a field where he had to rely on PC skills. Or perhaps he had to come out of retirement early due to the collapse of the investment market, finding himself in a strange new technology-centric workplace… even in food service. It’s really not funny. But it really is common.

I’m sure you know someone like this. Maybe it’s your mom or dad. Maybe they readily admit they can’t understand their computer. Or maybe they’re “using” one, but faking it…just getting by. Or maybe they’ve already given up, thinking they’re too stupid to really understand computing. Feel free to share your experience here.

And for those who can identify — who have tried to support a new or struggling user — let me leave you with some encouragement. Within 4 weeks, The Ultimate PC Primer will be available. (I’m hoping for more like 3 weeks, in time for Mother’s Day.) If you know someone who doesn’t quite have the grasp of core computing concepts he or she needs to succeed, I encourage you to give it a try. I spent 6.5 years thinking of them, making their “problem” my problem to solve. It’s my hope that by helping them, I help you, too.

Me speak no PC

April 12, 2011

This was a new one to me. I was listening to an industry-leading expert talk about upcoming technology, and heard this statement uttered when difficulty was encountered changing file manager settings on the Windows-based computer driving the projector:

“I don’t know what I’m looking at because this is PC stuff.”

Wait. What?!?

The majority of the world’s computer users are on Windows-based PCs, and an expert invited to provide insight and training doesn’t know anything about one? What’s going on?

I’m not a big proponent of the Mac vs. PC sort of battle. Truly, I don’t care that much about which one is “better,” (meaning “better for everyone,” though I do have my opinion on which is now better for newcomers). But it does surprise me when an industry-leading speaker can’t figure out how to use a basic feature of Windows because she spends all her time on a Mac. (No, she didn’t work for Apple.)

Trust me, there are differences between those operating systems, but they shouldn’t be that monumental. So what’s going on? You die-hard Mac users out there, help me out on this one. Would you really be unable to figure out how to move files from one folder to another if you had to use a non-Mac platform?

Don’t get me wrong. File management concepts are something to which I dedicate most of an entire chapter of The Ultimate PC Primer. But I didn’t think Windows Explorer and Mac OS Finder were all that different once the core concepts of file management were understood. So, speaking of core concepts…

Could this be another case of core concepts never understood? (It wouldn’t be the first time I’ve witnessed a speaker baffled by a PC during a presentation.)

Why the file system’s death is greatly exaggerated

April 7, 2011

A while back, Ryan sent me a link to this post on the death of the file system. It’s worth the quick read as Fred Beecher tackles whether the rise of “apps” and app-native data eliminates the need for the file system as we know it.

In the end, I completely agree with Fred. I just can’t see eliminating the file system in the near term. One file format per one app is not only naive, it ignores one of the greatest strengths of the file system: organization. Users can make it what they want. Sure, that’s one of its drawbacks as well. But the ability to use it to create taxonomies for virtually unlimited purposes is going to keep it around until something truly better is conceived.

The file system concept has been borrowed by an incredible number of PC applications, and dependencies on it abound. From mail clients to application development management systems, this concept of entities containing data inside nested folders is pervasive. Basic example: tree menus. They’ve grown into many software apps. Recently, I helped facilitate an effort to migrate a business from one piece of software to a different program suite. Guess what users needed to know in order to truly understand the new software? Due to the dependencies of nested “assets” within a specific taxonomy, users needed to be able to explore and manipulate these assets in a file manager-style interface. To extend the software further, files from different programs needed to be nested correctly. And this wasn’t rocket-science software, folks. It was pretty basic software.

Perhaps these examples are extreme. Maybe the file system truly is irrelevant for very basic apps. But apps (like most technology) have a way of growing, and users have a way of finding quick solutions to the limitations of computer technology. And the file system works, for now. It’s low-hanging fruit in a marketplace impatient for the current produce and often totally unwilling to wait for a new variety of fruit to be bred.

Will there ever be a better way to organize and store our data?  Probably. Eventually. But the file system as we know it isn’t going away soon, which is why the chapter on “storage” in The Ultimate PC Primer was so difficult to write. Even though file management has been somewhat abstracted away in some newer-generation software apps — shortcut software, in particular — much of the technology ending up in the user’s hands still relies on him/her understanding file system basics.