Software that isn’t afraid to ask questions

An area that user-focused software has gotten better at in the past 10 years or so is being aware, and protective of, the context in which users are operating. Things like autocomplete and instant validation are expected behaviors now. An area that software is really picking up steam is analytics, understanding behaviors. You see lightweight versions of this creeping into consumer software with things like and the graphs in Thunderbird, but most of the cool stuff is happening on a large scale in Hadoop clusters and hedge funds, because that where the money is right now.

But where software has not been making advancements is in being proactively helpful, using that context awareness, as well as those analytics. If that phrase puts you in a Clippy-induced rage, my apologies, but I think this is an area where software needs to go. I think Clippy failed because it was interfering with creative input. We’ve since learned that when I user wants to tell you something, you want to expedite that, not interfere. Google’s famed homepage doesn’t tell you how, or how to search. They’ve adapted to work with what people want to tell it.

I’m talking about software that gets involved in things computers are good at, like managing information, and gets involved in the process the way that a helpful person would. We’ve done some of this in simple, mechanical ways. will tell me when I’ve blown my beef jerky budget, Thunderbird will remind you to attach a file if you have the word “attached” in your email. I think this is a teeny-tiny preview of where things will go.

Let’s say you get a strange new job helping people manage their schedule. You get assigned a client. What’s the first thing you do, after introducing yourself? You don’t sit there and watch them, or ask them to fill out a calendar and promise to remind them when things are due. No, you ask questions. And not questions a computer would currently ask, but a question like “what’s the most important thing you do every day?”. Once you’ve gotten a few answers, you start making specific suggestions like “Do you think you could do this task on the weekends instead of before work?”.

Now, we’re a long way from software fooling people into thinking it cares about them, or understand their quirks, but we’re also not even trying to do the simple stuff. When I enter an appointment on Google calendar, it has some fields I can put data in, but it makes no attempt to understand what I’m doing. It doesn’t try to notice that it’s a doctor’s appointment in Boston at 9am and that I’m coming from an hour away during rush hour, and maybe that 15 minute reminder isn’t really going to do much. It would be more helpful if it asks a question like “are you having blood drawn?”, because if I am, it can then remind me the night before that I shouldn’t eat dinner. It can look at traffic that morning and tell me that maybe I should leave even earlier because there’s an accident. It can put something on my todo list for two weeks from now to see if the results are in. All from asking one easy question.

Now, a programmer who got a spec with a feature like this would probably be speechless. The complexity and heuristics involved are enormous. It would probably get pared down to “put doctor icon on appointment if the word doctor appears in title”. Lame, but that’s a start, right? I think this behavior is going to be attacked on many fronts, from “dumb” rules like that, to fancy techniques that haven’t even been invented yet.

I’ve started experimenting with this technique to manage the list of ideas/tasks I have. In order to see how it might work, I’ve actually forbidden myself to even use a GUI. It’s all command line prompts, because I basically want it to ask me questions rather than accept my commands. There’s not much to it right now, it basically picks an item off the list, and says, “Do you want to do this?” and I have to answer it (or skip it, which is valid data too). I can say it’s already done, or that I can’t do it because something else needs to happen first, or that I just don’t want to do it today.

If it’s having trouble deciding what option to show me, it will show two of them and say “Which of these is more important?”. Again, I’m not re-ordering a list or assigning priorities, I’m answering simple questions. More importantly, I’m only answering questions that have a direct impact on how the program helps me. None of this is artificial intelligence or fancy math or data structures, the code is actually pretty tedious so far, but even after a few hours, it actually feels helpful, almost personable.

If you know of any examples of software that actually tries to help in meaningful ways, even if it fails at it, let me know!

Macintosh Gripes: Poor Usability

I’ve had many computers over the years, and many of those have been Apple Macintoshes. I’ve had an SE, PowerMac 7200/75, iBook, Mini, and currently a MacBook Pro. Up through about 1997 I considered myself to primarily be a Mac user, but I switched because I was using and developing for the web more and more, and Mac web browsers were slow and poor, to put it kindly. I was also developing on Microsoft Access quite a bit, and there was no Mac version (and there still isn’t). When I started at StyleFeeder I had a choice and opted for Mac because that’s what the other developers were using, and I have to admit I regret that decision.

Macintosh OSes, especially OS X, is often praised for it’s quality and usability. Back in the old days, I’d agree. System 7 was hands-down better than Windows 3.1 in pretty much every way I can think of. These days, I’d say the tables have turned and can’t think of any way that OS X is better than Windows XP. They both crash infrequently, but I’d give a slight advantage to XP as it only crashes for me once or twice per year, while the Mac has done so at least twice since August. The Mac came with some decent software for dealing with movies and making music, but I don’t do much of that stuff and if I did, I’m sure I could find similar Windows software.

My main cause for regret is the overall usability of the OS. There are three main issues here. The lack of keyboard access to commands, the antiquated menu bar and the MDI.

As a full-time developer, I’m in the power user caste. I am constantly trying to find the shortest and easiest way to get things done. Nobody with half-a-clue about usability would argue that the mouse is an efficient command tool. It’s obviously the ideal way to select things and navigate spatially, but once you’ve gotten where you need to go, you are ready to start issuing commands. On Windows, every command is accessible via the keyboard. Common operations have simple key-combinations, more obscure ones will have more complex combinations. Control-P prints, Control-S saves, and so on. For tasks that are more specialized or used rarely you will likely have to use things like Alt-F-W-F (makes a new folder in explorer) or Shift-Control-F (formats code in Eclipse). These don’t need to be easy, but they are there and every user will find themselves learning a few of them depending on what they do often.

On a mac, no such luck. Some things like printing and saving are common, but after that it’s seemingly random and left to the application developer to implement commands, and most don’t. So I have to stop what I’m doing and reach for the mouse all the time. In usability terms, this is a fairly significant hurdle and has a high cost which I find unacceptable. Apple reluctantly introduced “universal keyboard access”, but it’s really bad and clearly a begrudged afterthought that makes you use the arrow keys to navigate menus.

The second gripe is the way OS X sticks the menu/command bar at the top of the screen. The logic here is that it’s easier to target something thats at the top of the screen because the mouse won’t go past it, and also that it’s always in the same place. That makes sense in theory, but fails in practice. As mentioned above, the mouse is a last resort for issuing commands, so by the time you’ve reached for it you’ve already incurred significant expense. Spending the extra 50ms target it is a minor addition to this.

Where the fixed menu bar really fails is when you use more than one monitor, because it sticks it to the top of the primary monitor. If you’re working in the second monitor you now need to grab the mouse, and drag it all the way to the second screen, then drag it back.

Also, when working in more than one program, which most people do, you can’t select commands from an inactive program. You need to find a safe place to click to activate it, which is expensive and varies widely, then you can access the menu bar. In windows you can click on an inactive menu bar and it will open with that same click.

Thirdly, almost all Mac programs use what is called an MDI, or Multiple Document Interface. This means that all the windows for a program are linked together as opposed to a Single Document Interface (SDI). Microsoft realized that MDI was a poor design in many cases, and fixed this in XP. MDI makes sense for some things, such as dialog boxes and the many windows that Photoshop uses to show things like layers and pallettes. This does not make sense for things email and word processing. Just because I have two documents open in the same word processor doesn’t mean there is any relation between the two. I should be able to alt-tab to a specific document and keep the other one minimized. A minor annoyance related to this is that you can have programs running with no windows at all, which ties up resources and is just plain confusing.

Perhaps the worst part of these problems is that they could be built into the OS and be optional behaviors, but they aren’t. Apple’s stance has always been that they know best, and that options are confusing. Unfortunately they compound this defect with the fact that they are extremely slow to change things even when they are clearly wrong. For proof of this you need only to see that they still put one-button trackpads on their frighteningly hot, overpriced laptops.