Define “User Friendly”

This evening I stumbled into a question thread on Quora about Linux and why it’s so user unfriendly. I thought this was funny because yesterday I decided I wanted to switch my Ubuntu install to use the command key (ergonomically located under my thumb, next to the spacebar) as the primary modifier key, instead of control (awkwardly down in the corners of the keyboard where you basically have to use your pinky finger). A single Google search turned up 3 different ways to do it, 2 of which were pretty easy (edit a clearly-identified line of a clearly-identified config file probably being the easiest). Another 10 minutes of reading those pages and some of the alternate answers, and another Google search later, and I found a little application I could install directly from the App Center in Ubuntu that gives a nice GUI interface to swapping keys around. Voila!

For the past few years, I’ve been trying to figure out how to do the equivalent with Windows 7 and 10. The short answer is: you can’t, without administrative access. With administrative access, it’s a royal pain in the butt, and might require registry hacking, and I have yet to find a step-by-step guide to the exact edits to the registry I’d need to make. (Might be mostly-possible with some commercial macro software, but I don’t use MSWindows at home enough to spend money on it, and can’t install software at work.)

Then I wanted to disable the numlock key (or, more specifically, permanently enable it, so that no matter what I do, I get numbers on the number pad). Again, a quick Google search turned up at least 4 ways to do it, each cleverer than the last. More importantly, that same software I installed a few minutes earlier? It simply has a setting for “numlock always on”.

Again, I’ve been looking for a way to do that with MSWindows for years. I figured out how to have it default to on, which is a huge improvement, but if I accidentally hit the button, it still goes off. There might be commercial macro software that can do the trick, and if I had one of a select set of Microsoft-manufactured keyboards, there’s some configuration software that I could probably do it with, but I haven’t otherwise figured out how to do it.

So, what is “user friendly”? I’d say the friendliest system works the way you would like without you having to do anything. But we have varying tastes, so that can’t always be true. Next best would be learning what you want—OS X used to learn a spelling if you typed the same word a certain number of times, so you didn’t have to explicitly tell it “yes, I mean it, and this is a word, so please learn it and stop trying to turn it into something else”. If that’s not possible—or it fails—easy configurability seems like it would be the next best thing.

(BTW, some of those methods I found for Linux would work on OS X, too. But it’s a moot point because it already disables the stupid numlock key, and has built-in GUI tools for swapping around the modifier keys. I’m genuinely surprised that MS hasn’t added that capability yet, given the number of people who prefer MSWindows for its configurability.)

So, is Windows 10 more user-friendly than Ubuntu? I suppose if you want to do everything the way it defaults, then, yes. But if you don’t…

Defaults tend to run the world and choosing how to set things up from scratch is hard, so it’s worth spending a little extra time to set the defaults in the best possible way. If people are used to something that is awkward, I really don’t know whether the “best possible way” would be to continue that bad design, or to choose the better but unfamiliar design. I’m an Apple user, so I’m used to the notion of throwing out the old way for something new (even if I don’t always agree with Apple on which changes are actually improvements—is there really some reason that going from iOS 8 to iOS 9 they had to reverse the direction you swipe to get to the home screen while within the app switcher?). But maybe if you’re used to having the primary modifier key under your pinky finger, switching it to under your thumb isn’t worth the re-learning unless tendonitis forces you.

 

Whyfor Num Lock?

Quick thought here: (1) Why do extended keyboards—that is, ones with a separate number pad—even have a Num Lock key any more? (2) Why does Microsoft Windows default to it being off? 

I get why there is such a key on keyboards that don’t have a number pad, such as laptops. And it makes perfect sense if the “number pad” keys are also letters and stuff that you’d start with it off. But Windows ought to be smart enough to know the difference and choose appropriately—heck, my Mac can even handle the concept of having numlock on for one keyboard and off for another connected to the same machine simultaneously. 

But, more generally, when was the last time a keyboard was made that had a number pad but didn’t have arrow keys? And does anybody ever intentionally turn numlock off for an extended keyboard, in order to use the number pad as arrow keys (interspersed with a bunch of other keys) rather than using the even-closer dedicated arrow keys?

As near as I can tell (based on complaints I hear at work and online), it is solely a historical artifact, whose only purpose now is to screw up passwords and complicate data entry. 

And while I’m at it: why isn’t MSWindows, after all these years, smart enough to overrule that (and other modifier keys) in software with an easy-to-use interface? It’s clearly possible (since OS X can do it), so why do I have to do a registry hack or play around in BIOS (or UEFI, or whatever they are these days) settings to fix this idiocy? 

Uncanny [Interface] Valley?

As I type this, I am deleting Microsoft Office from my computer. I had downloaded the free trial, in order to catch myself up a bit on the programs, for all the job listings that “require” “familiarity with Microsoft Office”, or words to that effect.[0] In some ways, they’ve vastly improved over the last version I used. On the other hand, I’d still take MSWord 5.1 (that’s vintage ’93, for those of you too young to remember) over any version I’ve seen since, if I had the choice. In fact, IMHO, the only application in the bunch that has actually improved in the last few versions is Excel—which is also the only one that is probably superior to its competitors. (I say “probably” because I’m less confident that I’m familiar with all of the options where spreadsheets are concerned.) It looks like the latest versions have stopped moving menu items around, at least—none of that “adapting” to how you work, which completely undermines the muscle memory of where commands are. And, I have to admit, the interfaces really have gotten better.

And yet…

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Website Compatibility

I decided not to put something like this into my last email to the tech support person regarding a broken job-seeking and -application website, since it’s as likely to piss them off as to help my cause. But I needed to say it:

You really shouldn’t be supporting browsers in the first place, you should be supporting standards. By every measure I’ve seen, simply doing so would basically guarantee compatibility with Safari, Firefox, & Chrome, and provide functional-if-not-pretty support for Internet Explorer, OmniWeb, and Opera. And I know it’s not the tech geek’s fault—it’s a policy decision. But that’s why there are standards, and I’m really getting sick of companies’ solution to their website not functioning being “use Internet Explorer”—as if that’s even an option if you don’t use MSWindows, or an appropriate response when barely half of people are using IE any more.

It’s doubly annoying when I discover that the only reason the website requires IE is because they’ve hard-coded it to check for IE. I’ve had 100% perfect functionality using Firefox on all but one “IE-only” website, just by having it identify as IE8 running on MSWindows 7. [And the one site I never tried that on was also claiming compatibility with IE5! Really? You’re maintaining compatibility with a webbrowser that was obsolete 9 years ago, and hasn’t seen 1% browser share since 2006? And yet not bothering with current webbrowsers that make up 40-50% of browser share?]

Communicating Online, or, Re-inventing a Useful Medium

OK, I know I’m behind the times and a bit of a curmudgeon when it comes to the newest tools and techniques for communicating online, but it’s not all me grumping. There’s good reasons for some of it.

What triggered this post was little better than a wiki walk. My [non-gamer] coworker was asking about Gen Con, and then about RPGs, and then about LARPs. He expressed some interest, so I thought I’d point him at Madison By Night—which either doesn’t exist anymore, or doesn’t have a webpage anymore. [The most-recent page I found appears to have been last updated before the start of the 2003-2004 school year.] However, one of the links for it went to an old friend’s website, because he was one of the original founders of Madison By Night. I hadn’t realized he had a website, beyond the listings for Gen Con events. So I started poking around. And found a couple of essays that mesh well with thoughts I’ve had over the years—not-so-little things that drive me batty online.

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Working with me, not despite me

Why is it that Microsoft products always seem to be a little rough around the edges? Or even a lot rough. Take a really simple and obvious operation like automatic updates. I’m glad that it has automated updates, rather than relying on users to find out about, and then seek out, download, and apply them. But MSWindows Vista is all intrusive in ways it shouldn’t be, and all hidden and stealthy in ways it shouldn’t be. This morning, I was once again surprised by my computer at work restarting, without any warning, due to having installed some sort of update. There was probably a notification in the start bar that I missed–but that’s exactly my point: it’s too easy to miss. And I could’ve been watching Hulu fullscreen (I had been earlier), or had the start bar set to auto-hide–then what?

That’s just not enough notification. Especially given the next step, where it restarts without any warning. What if I’d been working on something important, and it wasn’t saved [recently]?
Now, true, I’m sure some of this has to do with it being set up that way by IT–that is, if I had control, I could probably set it differently, rather than forcing the update at 3am every week. But, even given that I don’t have the power to stop it, it could allow me to pause the restart long enough to finish what I’m doing, or at least give me some in-your-face warning that I couldn’t possibly miss, so that I could manually clean up after myself (such as saving my work).

Instead, it just unceremoniously forces everything to quit and restarts. In particular, it didn’t trigger proper exit routines for apps (such as saving). And, as an added insult, in addition to forgetting everything i was working on (not only didn’t save, but it didn’t, say, remember my webbrowser windows and reopen them afterwards), it didn’t forget the one thing it was supposed to forget: my “one-time” login on a website. [Though, in fairness, this last part might be either Mozilla’s or Microsoft’s fault.]

In contrast, my Mac gives me a nice, obvious notice of available updates, and let’s me decide when I want to apply them. More importantly, even the automated process keeps the user’s needs in mind. It tells open apps to save documents, and remember their state, to the degree they do so–just like a normal quit. And if an app can’t quit cleanly (such as due to an unsaved, unnamed new document), it won’t quit at all–the restart is aborted for the time being.

p.s.: My apologies in advance for any formatting errors or other bizarreness–I’m trying out posting from my iPod touch with the WordPress app.