Driving home what an operating system is

November 20, 2011

Car dashboard

What is an operating system? That’s a question I’ve received from time to time here. While I provide an adequate explanation in The Ultimate PC Primer, my intent in the book wasn’t to spend a lot of time explaining operating systems. Here’s why…

For most ordinary users, an operating system is a nothing. It is taken for granted. We don’t care much about it so long as it works. Applications/programs are where the value of the computer lies for us. But the question about operating systems often comes from computer newcomers who are starting to spread their wings. They’ve learned not all computer systems look and function the same, and by raw research, asking a friend, or context clues they eventually realize that this is due to different “operating systems.”

So, today on Explain Technology, today’s questions are: what is an operating system and what good is one? Why does a computer need it, and what does that mean for us?

Let’s answer this backwards. If you know that nearly everything you want to do with a computer involves programs or “apps,” then the first thing to learn is that those programs won’t work without an operating system (OS). Think of this like automobiles and the road. If you have several nice cars parked in your garage, you undoubtedly own them so that you can drive them somewhere — so that they will carry you from one place to another. Could you drive them with no road? No, you need a road for them to function and rules of the road (driving rules) for them to operate safely, without crashing into other cars. Likewise, computer programs that you like to use to achieve some useful benefit also need a bedrock to work from and rules in which to operate.

But the OS is more than just a necessity. It’s a nicety for you, because Read the rest of this entry »

Microsoft on File Management

September 18, 2011

A few weeks back Microsoft posted a note about upcoming Improvements in Windows Explorer (in Windows 8). I’ve previously identified file management as the second most important concept for computer literacy (in The Top 15 Most Important Understandings Needed for Solid PC Literacy). I can also say without any hesitation that the single most difficult, most time consuming, and frequently edited/re-written chapter (for both writing and illustrating) in The Ultimate PC Primer was the one on storage and file management. As such, I was thrilled to have confirmation from Microsoft that they’re taking the importance of file management for all level of users seriously. They call out Windows Explorer as

the most widely used desktop tool

More importantly, they admit that only a small group of “power users” push Explorer to its limits (and add plugins) while the majority use a handful of common features — copy, paste, rename, delete — frequently.  As a result, they claim:

Our goal is to improve the usage experience for a majority of customers

and continue to say that their number 1 goal with the Windows Explorer rebuild is:

Optimize Explorer for file management tasks. Return Explorer to its roots as an efficient file manager and expose some hidden gems, those file management commands already in Explorer that many customers might not even know exist.

I don’t often find occasion to publicly thank Microsoft, but in this case I’m quite glad they’re affirming the importance of arming users with better ability to manage their files. I also applaud their broad confirmation that power users don’t represent all users. Now that said, much of their work is focused on the Ribbon. While I have yet to encounter a single user who likes the Ribbon, Microsoft seems to have done quite a bit of research on this. So if we must use the Ribbon — is it too much to ask to give users the choice? — at least they’re planning on bringing the most commonly used features to the top left of it. We’ll see how this (and Windows 8 in general) is received once delivered.

In the meantime, if you know a newcomer to computing who has yet to grasp what file management is all about, check out Lesson 9 in The Ultimate PC Primer. Nearly all illustrations in there apply to all past and current versions of Windows Explorer (and the overall lesson will apply to storage and file management in nearly any operating system).

Why the iPad isn’t a desktop PC killer (yet)

August 20, 2011

A question to ponder: with the introduction of the iPad, is there a need to own a PC? In other words, does the iPad mean death for the traditional PC for most consumers? After all, it has that slick touch screen and doesn’t require keyboard, mouse, and most other bulky peripheral components that traditional PCs do. Plus, with that slim form factor, you can take it nearly anywhere. And thanks to dual WIFI and cell network compatibility, it can be connected to the internet almost continuously. What more could a user want?

But is it enough to completely replace a PC? Well, in my evaluation, yes…but no. Here’s why… Read the rest of this entry »

Fast vs. Intuitive: a challenge in interface design and why the iPad is only the first step

August 10, 2011

Computer interface designers of the world, I lay a quandary at your feet: in the same interface,  is it possible to provide newcomers with intuitive operation while not hindering experienced users’ desire for speed and rapid productivity? It seems like most commonly, with existing computing interfaces, we find the following at play:

I’d argue that today these two continua seem linked. Intuitive devices — devices targeting the general populace — and are likely optimized for those with fewer existing (computing) mental models. Those wanting extremely fast usage are likely the power users, having more robust mental models built from years of existing computing experience. So the big dilemma is: Read the rest of this entry »

Intermediate PC Users do Dot-to-Dots

June 27, 2011

Question: What makes the difference between a beginner and intermediate PC user?

Answer: concept chaining.

Do you remember doing dot-to-dot puzzles?  You have to be able to connect multiple dots to understand the complete picture.

Photo of a dot to dot puzzle from a childrens activity book

Proficient PC users leverage the same problem-solving skills. Read the rest of this entry »

The Top 15 Most Important Understandings Needed for Solid PC Literacy

June 10, 2011

What are the most crucial concepts that a newcomer to PCs would have to master in order to gain foundational computer literacy? Put on your “I know absolutely nothing about a PC” hat and consider the following. (If you need help finding such a hat, visit your nearest senior center for an eye-opening reminder of just how much you’ve already internalized and likely take for granted daily.) So, like a traditional Top 10 list (but with 5 more) ponder this…. Read the rest of this entry »

Good or Bad: Windows 8 for newcomers

June 7, 2011

Colleagues John and Ryan were discussing these early videos showing off Windows 8 features. Specifically, in Building “Windows 8,” by Microsoft’s own admission, their upcoming OS sports a major UI change, drawing inspiration from touch-devices (both phones and tablets). My thoughts:

First, as a long-time PC user myself, having a multitasking, highly powerful PC with a visual contextual “heads-up display” interface to programs/apps is exciting. It’s the stuff power users and PC enthusiasts drool over. I can immediately think, “Wow. Fast, visual access to information like never before.” As an existing user and student of interface concepts, I can quickly adapt my mental model to make sense of the “status” and “access” conventions employed by Microsoft’s “tiles” interface concept.

Second, it occurs to me that as an observer of technology on the behalf of new and confused users, Microsoft has clearly followed Apple into the “new mainstream,” focusing on serving existing users more than newcomers. This partially leaves me wondering who now thinks of the unskilled users and newer adopters. (See Mac vs. Windows for newcomer usability for my historical opinion.) Yet, I certainly won’t be a doomsayer about this. I’m going to hope that some of the trade-offs for easy information access and one-touch selection overcome the additional evolutionary stair steps Microsoft is adding that might otherwise hamper those who haven’t been along for the entire PC ride.

But third, and most importantly, Read the rest of this entry »

The best (and most fun) explanation of screen resolution ever

June 3, 2011

Author’s Note: There is a more recent post on this subject that includes a video explanation based on the pinscreen examples mentioned below: Screen Resolution Explained.


Have you ever struggled to explain computer screen resolution?

Yesterday a colleague and I were discussing the challenge of PC users with computer screen resolution set to 800×600 pixels. Yes, I know that’s very low resolution by modern standards (especially with relatively inexpensive large LCD screen availability), but I’m pretty sure the end users in this case had no idea how to change their computer’s screen settings (if they even knew it was possible.) This is certainly not the first conversation I’ve had on resolution. Resolution confuses a lot of people. After all, you couldn’t change your television’s resolution, so it never occurs to PC users that anything about the display might be changeable.

Now, it’s not hard to show users photos of different computers running the same content at different screen resolutions to help them understand that the computer can display things differently. But if you really need someone to understand the concept of resolution, you have your work cut out for you. For years I also struggled with this task until I happened across the best prop-analogy ever for explaining resolution. Back when I worked for the Fermi National Accelerator Laboratory, they were starting to build a new hands-on science center for students. One of their exhibits featured a display about resolution, and they found a clever and fun way to convey the concept: pinscreens. (You’ve likely seen one of the handheld models in a novelty or museum store, or the large tables at Epcot Center in Orlando, Florida.) One unit used traditional pins, but the other was a special model custom-built to use roofing nails instead. The dimensions of both units being the same, the only difference was in the size of the “head” and the number of pins/nails that fit on the screen. Viola! A prop-analogy for explaining computer screen resolution! Thanks, Fermilab!

So the next time you’re facing this task, get yourself a traditional pinscreen to explain high resolution and whip up a quick low-resolution example with a box of roofing nails and small sheet of cardboard. Your learners will “get the picture” more clearly, and you’ll get to have fun making impressions at the same time.

Author’s Note: Check out Screen Resolution Explained, a video in which I took my own advice and built the nail-based pinscreen.

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.