Eric Armstrong

Date: Thu, 21 Sep 2000 15:12:27 -0700

From:   Eric Armstrong


Subject:   User friendliness and the Chordset

Citing Doug Engelbart quoted in an article...

"He believes the commercial world's fixation on user-friendliness has seriously slowed down the computer revolution. Instead of developing the best tools, marketers want products that are easy to use, even if they aren't the most productive. So consumers are sold inferior products.

I'm sorry to say this, but Doug and I part company on the crucial area of "user friendliness".

The amount of complexity you can tolerate depends on the degree to which you use the system. Even when greater complexity is desirable in the long term, a short term "ramp" is needed that keeps things simple, so you can get there from here. In fact, most complex systems start out simply and become complex over time. The people who "grow up" with the system, therefore, easily tolerate levels of complexity that new users find daunting. But penetration into the user space depends on user acceptance.

"User friendliness", in my book, is simply respect for the user -- mostly by limiting the cognitive demands imposed by the system, but also by limiting the requirements for motor skills, coordination, and physical movement.

The bottom line is *time*. Complex systems take time to learn. The reward for traveling the learning curve depends on the utility of the system, and on its longevity. A system that is inordinately hard to learn will be neither wide-spread nor long lived, so the payoff for the initial investment becomes a dubious prospect.

There is a complex tradeoff between the time-to-produce benefits of complex systems, and the time-to-learn benefits of simple systems. Getting the mix just right is a bit of science, and quite a lot of art. And in the Darwinian struggle for system survival, it is difficult for any user to invest large amounts of time in a system that is as likely to be replaced by something better in a year or two -- by the system's authors, if not by a competitor.

Were a chordset available as an "optional extra", I would love to have one. I might start with 4 or 5 one-key commands that I could invoke occasionally, just to save some typing. I might add two finger chords later. That would be a useful addition to my life that would save time.

But if the system depended on it to function, and forced me to master complex chord combinations at the outset, I suspect the growth prospects for that system would be dim.


Eric Armstrong