Your software hates you and your devices think you're stupid

If you find our user interfaces unintuitive, that's YOUR problem, chum

Red hate key on a keyboard

Something for the Weekend, Sir? “I want you to kill Barbra Streisand.”

Yup, no problem, I’ll enjoy doing that. Anyone else?

“Kylie Minogue. And bloody Madonna, I can’t stand her any more.”

Consider them bumped off. It’s sounding a little misogynistic, though. Are you sure?

“Leave Chaka Khan alone.”

Fine, Chaka survives to sing another day. Anyone else you want wiped out?

“Bros.”

Now you’re talking. As you might have guessed, faithful reader, I have been tasked by The In-No-Way-Radioactive One with pruning an improbable list of some 563 MP3s that have been generically tagged Hits from the Eighties.

The source material is sitting on a tiny gadget that students of history refer to as an “MP3 player” – i.e. no camera, no comms, no apps, just plays music, mono matrix display smaller than a postage stamp. It was given to her by her brother, who couldn’t work out how to use it. I can only imagine he in turn received it as one of those tautological free gifts you get when buying life insurance or a funeral plan.

He’d have been better off asking for the ballpoint pen.

While a pen might lack the ability to produce much by way of sound other than a tension-relieving click, let alone 30-year-old chart-toppers by Spandau Ballet and Tom Tom Club, it would not have necessitated a micro-printed, concertina-folded user guide in nine languages and frequent recharging via USB.

The target device is an iPhone. How difficult can it be?

Not difficult at all, of course. It was just a matter of connecting the MP3 player to Mme D’s computer via USB, mounting the music player as a disk drive, filtering its untidy file structure to reveal only the MP3 tracks across all directories, copying them to iTunes on the computer, regrouping them into a single album because iTunes’ playlist feature is pants, customising iOS device sync settings and sending them out to the iPhone via USB again.

Easy, right?

Of course I couldn’t use the same USB cable for both devices. The MP3 player and the iPhone in question have been designed with proprietary connectors, so I had to go hunting through my hoard of writhing and inexplicably knotted electronic serpents to find the cables with the appropriate plugs for each.

Here’s a brief unboxing video of me locating them.

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Simple enough, you’d think, but the extraordinary thing is that people who do not work in even the fringes of the IT industries find stuff like this not easy. In fact, they consider it a pain in the arse and ask their partners to do it for them while they do something more useful with their lives.

Software developers and hardware designers reading this are probably aghast at the impertinence of the general public. On the other hand, it helps explain why so many Millennials and Old Geezers alike are being tempted away from downloads and streaming without stopping to even consider CD-Audio.

I love CD for all sorts of reasons but, let’s face it, CD players are shite – all of them. It’s as if interface designers for the original CD players decided to ignore the non-linear versatility of the technology and instead focused on optimising track selection for buttons that had been invented for cassette tape players. And it has stayed this way ever since.

This slavish effort to emulate the Sony Walkman interface as a means to ensure familiarity was misdirected. Designers could have learnt more valuable lessons from the way people enjoyed playing music on vinyl.

Instead of five buttons labelled Play, Pause, Stop, Rew and FF, they could have created three buttons labelled “Play the fucking song I want to listen to”, “Stop playing the fucking song I’m listening to” and “Play another fucking song I want to listen to”.

But no, if I choose to listen to Bring It On Home, the last song on side 2 of Led Zeppelin II, I can’t just slap the disc on the turntable and drop the needle on the track any more. Oh no indeed. Instead, I have to insert the CD, wait for the player to whirr whirr whirr on its own as it ignores me completely for a while, then the interface puts me at track 1, Whole Lotta Love, the track I don’t want to listen to right now.

At this point, I frantically press at FF multiple times to get to track 10. Or is it 9? Silly me, I know the song names and their sequence but never got around to memorising their individual track number. Damn, some idiot added some “rare bootlegs” in the middle so I have to keep pressing and now I’ve gone past the end and find myself back at track 1 again.

No wonder no one wants to entertain a return to CD and have headed straight back to vinyl instead. It’s simpler to use than every digital alternative known to humankind.

None of this has anything to do with music, by the way, and everything to do with how interface designers think and how product marketing works. Every advert for new software claims that it is “easy to use” even though it absolutely is not.

Remember Apple’s catchline for the original iMac? Three steps to connect to the internet? 1. Plug in. 2 Switch on. 3. There is no step 3.

Yes there was. And a step 4, 5, 6, 7, back to 2 because you had to reboot, then 8 and 9 and a lot of yelling while your children watched on in tears.

I’ve just read something by Adobe that claims Acrobat makes it “easy” to create a fillable form. Apparently you click on Prepare Form, whereupon the software magically adds form fields to any document of your choice; you add a few more; then you share it and wait while the responses are collected for you. Easy!

While you’re at it, why not teach yourself to play the flute and rid the world of all known diseases?

Youtube Video

To help you make sense of what “easy” means to an interface designer, I’ve compiled a list:

  • with a click = at least 35 clicks and 258 key presses
  • automatically = at least 35 clicks, 258 key presses and a reboot
  • instantly = within the hour if you’re lucky, otherwise tomorrow morning
  • seamlessly = via a wildly different interface, possibly even a separate software program
  • intuitive = illogical, unfathomable
  • interactive = you have to do all the work
  • cross-platform = Windows-only but the developer’s Mum has a Mac beta and the Linux version remains a figment of his procrastinating imagination
  • highly connected = highly hackable
  • encrypted = highly hackable and locks you out of your own data
  • cloud-based = occasionally accessible
  • drag and drop = try this with crockery in your kitchen and you’ll have an idea what this software will do to your documents
  • flat look = we couldn’t be arsed to waste time on being creative
  • consistent look and feel = inconsistent look and feel unless by accident
  • user-friendly = it hates you

So if you feel that computing interfaces are not easy and not getting any easier either, you’re not alone and you are not the problem. Just don’t expect things to change for the better any time soon.

Joe/Jo Public, accept my sympathies. As I seamlessly murder Barbra Streisand and friends with my bare hands (on mouse), I can only imagine what it’s like.

I feel for you.

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Alistair Dabbs
Alistair Dabbs is a freelance technology tart, juggling tech journalism, training and digital publishing. He tells anyone who cares to listen how awful music was in the 1980s, only to be proven wrong time and time again. Perhaps in 30 years time from now, we will be looking back on 2018 as a golden year for easy-to-use devices and intuitive interface design.



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