Waaaay back in middle school, I used WordPerfect 5.1 to type up book reports and other homework assignments. This was on a Tandy 1000, one of the first home computers. Having never used a PC before, much less word processing software, it took some time to learn. WordPerfect came with a plastic template you laid above the keyboard’s F-keys, which told you what pressing various key combinations did. In my ignorance, I hit Enter twice at the end of every line of text to get double line spacing, which, of course, made editing and revising a nightmare. My uncle, a computer wiz, laughed when he saw this, and taught me how to set the line spacing the right way. It amazed me that the computer could reflow the text automatically.
A lesson I learned from this was that the manual that came with the 3.5″ disks was pretty darn useful.
Back then, in the late 80s and early 90s, software was a specialized tool or instrument. I was fortunate to have a computer at home. Not everyone did. To use it proficiently, you had to do some learning. This was expected. It wasn’t WordPerfect’s fault that I didn’t even know line spacing existed as a feature. Like learning any powerful tool, it required some time and effort to develop the skills.
There’s been a drastic paradigm shift over the last 25 years. Software has become ubiquitous. It’s no longer just the programs you run on your home or work computer. It’s on our phones and tablets. It’s what web applications are made of. It’s in cars, ATMs, information kiosks, and home appliances. Commercial software rarely comes with user manuals anymore. My smartphone came with a single sheet of paper showing you how to turn it on. When there are Android updates, I don’t get a book that explains the additional gestures it now recognizes, what the new icons mean, or how the menus have been restructured. I’m expected to just poke around the new interface until I can do what I’m trying to do. When you visit a new website you haven’t been to before, you are similarly expected to already know how to navigate it. This is possible because there are common conventions around software features and interface design, so that, when using a new piece of software, you are not starting completely from scratch.
The consequence of this radical shift is that if you can’t immediately use a new piece of software, there are 2 possible explanations: 1) you are lacking a general “digital literacy” which most people are understood to have (as opposed to specialized knowledge), or 2) the software is crappy.
We take pity on digital illiterates, but we have no sympathy or patience for crappy software. “Why does it take me 3 clicks to get to X? Why doesn’t this application do Y? Why doesn’t the icon resemble this, instead of that?” These complaints are commonplace. Increasingly, it doesn’t seem to matter what the software actually does or what the level of its inherent complexity might be. The pace of technological change and the pressures of high-tech business have made it important for users to be able to use software immediately, and to be satisfied enough that they don’t run off to a competitor’s product. Our intolerance is a direct result of this frenzied climate, which has taken user-friendliness to the extreme of trying to be all things to all people (or at least, as many things to as many people as possible).
The problem is that there is a lot of variability in user preferences, opinions, and needs. The more that software tries to accommodate a wide variety of these concerns, the less useful it becomes as a tool. I think you see this especially in many mobile apps and websites. They DO very little, but they go out of their way to make it easy to do it. This focus on ease is deceptive. It leads to a false sense of empowerment. We are surrounded by software everywhere that appears to enable us to do all sorts of things, but we actually don’t understand enough to know how to operate things skillfully. We just click and swipe, click and swipe, and get frustrated when magic doesn’t happen.
Using technology as a tool can save significant work and allow us to do things not possible before. But that doesn’t necessarily imply that it is or should be easy. It’s a subtle but important difference. Knowing how to fly an airplane enables you to traverse thousands of miles in a few hours, but that doesn’t mean operating one is easy, or that should be. One should be trained to be a skilled pilot, so that she can make the machine do all the complex things it needs to, in a variety of situations. One shouldn’t expect a cockpit that lets anyone to marginally be able to fly a plane. Because how far is that going to get you, really?