October, 2005

  • The Old New Thing

    One person's discoverable feature is another person's annoyance


    When I discussed the behavior of Windows XP SP2's autoplay dialog, one person suggested making the CD autoplay configuration dialog more discoverable to solve the problem of people not knowing how to get back to the dialog to change the settings later.

    But what is the boundary between discoverability and annoying behavior?

    Windows 95 drew a bouncy arrow pointing to the Start button to draw your attention to it, because usability testing revealed that it wasn't discoverable enough. Yet there existed a population of people who found the arrow downright annoying. And this even though it only appeared once; the moment you clicked on the Start button, the arrow went away forever. But for those people, apparently, even once is annoying.

    The autoplay configuration dialog is in a somewhat intuitive place: It's a property on the CD drive itself. Though apparently it's not intuitive enough for some. Even the ultra-geeky Tweak UI PowerToy tells you this. Then again, maybe ultra-geeks are too cool to use Tweak UI.

    The fact that many people don't realize where the autoplay configuration settings are kept could mean one of several things. First, it might mean that the location is still not discoverable enough. But configurating one's autoplay settings is hardly a common activity. Do you really want a balloon to pop up each time a CD autoplays saying "Click here to change your autoplay settings"? What if your default autoplay action was "do nothing"? Do you want a balloon to pop up saying "See, I'm not doing anything, just like you told me"? Moreover, if the CD you inserted launches a fullscreen game, the balloon won't be visible anyway, rendering the entire exercise moot.

    Another possible reason why people don't find the CD autoplay configuration dialog is that it doesn't even occur to them that this is a configurable behavior; they simply don't even realize that the dialog exists. If you don't know that something exists, you certainly won't go looking for it. (This is why it is often said that a significant part of the scientific research process is merely asking the right question.)

    Identifying this boundary and knowing when you've crossed is a hard thing to figure out. If you ask ten people, you will get ten different answers. The ability to strike a balance is one of those things you just develop a sense of from experience, supported by years of usability research.

  • The Old New Thing

    Fair Isle: Knitters Wanted


    The National Trust of Scotland has two houses to let on the island of Fair Isle, population: 65. The two properties are available at a very reasonable rate of only £300. Per year. Although the National Trust does not promise a job, it points out that there are skill shortages in construction and knitting. The knitting cooperative apparently has more orders than it can fill. (You can listen to the entire story and find a link to the original advertisement on NPR's web site.)

    (Alas, the deadline for applications has passed. That NPR story led to an avalanche of interest from the United States, mostly from knitters.)

    This story reminded me that my friend Wendy made money on the side in her younger days doing hand knitting. I wonder how many people bought a lovely English hand-knitted sweater imagining it having been created by a sweet old lady in a rocking chair, when in fact it was done by a fifteen-year-old girl with a shaved head and an attitude while sitting in front of the telly watching Dallas.

  • The Old New Thing

    New device detected: Boeing 747


    Once again, airplane manufacturers have been giving serious consideration to offering Internet access in the skies. Back in 1994, Boeing considered equipping each seat with a serial modem. Laptop users could hook up to the modem and dial out. (Dial-up was the primary means of connecting to the Internet back in those days.)

    We chuckled at the though of attaching the serial cable and getting a Plug-and-Play pop-up message:

    New device detected: Boeing 747
  • The Old New Thing

    Why is it even possible to disable the desktop anyway?


    Some time ago, I mentioned the dangers of disabling the desktop window. But why is it even possible to disable the desktop anyway?

    This is simply an artifact of the history of philosophy of Windows operating system design.

    Back in the old days, memory was tight, hard drives were luxuries, the most popular CPU for the IBM PC didn't have memory protection, and software development was reserved for the rarefied elite who could afford to drop a few thousand dollars on an SDK. This had several consequences:

    • Tight memory means that anything optional had to be left behind.
    • Software developers were trusted not to be stupid.
    • Software developers were trusted not to be malicious.
    • Software developers were trusted to do the right thing.

    Certainly there could have been a check in all the places where windows can be disabled to reject attempts to disable the desktop window, but that would have made one window "more special" than others, undermining the "simplicity" of the window manager. Anything optional had to be left behind.

    Software developers were trusted not to make the sort of stupid mistakes that led to the desktop being disabled, the heap being corrupted, or any of the other "don't do that" types of mistakes lurking in the shadows Windows programming. If such a serious mistake were to creep in, certainly their testing department would have caught it before the program was released. Software development was hard because nobody said this was going to be easy.

    Software developers were trusted to treat their customers with respect. Because, after all, software developers who abuse their customers won't have customers for very long. If a program put itself in the Startup group, then it was doing so not for selfish reasons but rather because the customer actually wanted it.

    The window manager was left fairly exposed, granting software developers the power to do things like install hooks, subclass windows that were owned by other processes, and manipulate the contents of the Startup group, with the assumption that software developers would use the power for good, not for evil. Don't bother stopping a program from disabling the desktop window, because maybe that program is doing it for a good reason that we hadn't thought of.

    The world of software has changed much since those simpler days. I had a nice chat with my colleague Zeke where we discussed how philosophy has changed over the years. Maybe he'll write a few words on the subject...

  • The Old New Thing

    The things in the PDC 2005 introductory video


    I remarked earlier that the creative director for the PDC rummaged through our offices looking for stuff which was to be used in the opening PDC video to decorate a developer's cubicle. It all flashed by really quickly, but if you were paying attention, you might have been able to make out the following:

    One thing you won't find in the developer's cubicle, however, is a can of soda. That's because none of the soda companies would give permission for their product to appear in this video.

    Later in the video, several pages from the web site tastingmenu.com are flashed across the screen. Puzzle: Why was this site chosen?

    (For legal reasons, I can't provide a link to the video. Any comments that claim to include a link to the video will be deleted, sorry.)

  • The Old New Thing

    Quick and dirty buzzword bingo cards in Excel


    Jensen Harris's brief example of using Excel's random number generator reminded me that I had need for the random number generator recently myself: Generating buzzword bingo cards.

    At the Battlestar Galactica party, our hosts needed to create some Battlestar Galactica-themed buzzword bingo cards and asked me to help out. Here's how I did it:

    1. Build a list of words and phrases in column A.
    2. In column B, next to each word or phrase, enter "=rand()". You can use Jensen's "block entry" trick.
    3. Build your bingo card elsewhere on the sheet.
    4. In the upper left square of the bingo card, enter "=A1"; in the next square, "=A2", and so on.
    5. Highlight cell B1.
    6. Click the "Sort ascending" button on the toolbar.
    7. Print your bingo card.
    8. Repeat steps 6 and 7 until satisfied.

    It's not beautiful, but it gets the job done.

  • The Old New Thing

    Follow-up: Portsmouth Spinnaker Tower now open, but maybe you should take the stairs


    Portsmouth's ever-delayed Millennium Tower (since renamed Spinnaker Tower) has finally been completed, five years late and £11 million over budget. But even opening day couldn't escape without its own glitches, for the project manager was trapped in a glass-walled lift for over an hour, requiring abseiling engineers to come and rescue him.

  • The Old New Thing

    There's something about Rat Poker


    When performing usability tests, one of the standard tasks we give people is to install a game, and the game we usually use is The Puzzle Collection. (Yes, it's an old game, but continually updating the game makes it less valid to compare results from one year to the next.)

    One of the things that the game's Setup does that always confuses people is that it asks you where you want to install it and suggests a directory. If you accept the default, a warning box appears that reads, "The directory C:\Program Files\Microsoft Puzzle Collection does not exist. Do you wish to create it?"

    People see this dialog box and panic.


    Because it's an unexpected dialog, and unexpected dialogs create confusion and frustration. From a programming perspective, this is a stupid dialog, because of course the directory doesn't exist. You're installing a new program! From a usability point of view, this is a stupid dialog, because it makes users second-guess themselves. "Gosh, did I do something wrong? The computer is asking me if I'm sure. It only does that when I'm about to do something really stupid." They then click "No" (it's always safest to say No), which returns them to the dialog asking them to specify an installation directory, and they'll poke around trying to find a directory that won't generate an "error message". I've seen users install the Puzzle Collection into their Windows directory because that was the first directory they could think of that didn't generate the "error message".

    Anyway, after the program is installed (one way or another), we tell them to relax and play a game. We say it as if we're giving them a reward for a job well done, but it's actually still part of the test. We want to see how easily users can find whatever it is they just installed.

    One thing you can count on is that when faced with the collection of games available, for some reason, they always pick Rat Poker.


    Each of us has our own pet theory why people always pick Rat Poker. Personally, I think it's that the Rat Poker icon is the most friendly-looking of the bunch. Many of them are abstract, or they depict scary creatures, but awww look at that cute rat with the big nose. He looks so cheerful!

    Click. Another vote for Rat Poker.

  • The Old New Thing

    Answering the phone, a classic rookie mistake


    I had taken yesterday off from work just to take a breather, but I stopped by the office in the morning to pick up my bicycle helmet. (How I managed to leave my bicycle helmet at the office is not important.) My office telephone rang and I answered it.

    As my colleague Ken described it later, "Ah, classic rookie mistake."

    The call was from an emergency meeting in another group. They called to put me on the hook for a problem with Windows Vista Setup because they believed that my group was responsible, being among those that recently RI'd. I ended up staying until 4pm, then resuming the investigation at home for another few hours until the problem was identified. (The problem was introduced by another group, but they want my group to change its code to work around the problem.)

    Now I need to take a day off from my day off.

  • The Old New Thing

    Be careful what you name your product group


    They thought they were so clever when they named the Desktop Applications Division. "And the abbreviation is 'DAD', isn't that cute? Complements the Microsoft Office Manager toolbar (MOM)."

    And then the troubles started.

    Shortly after the new product group was formed, everybody in the product group started getting email talking about strange non-business things. How's the garden doing? Did you get my letter? When will the twins be coming home from college?

    The reason is that the email address for sending mail to the entire division was—naturally—"DAD". But it so happens that many people have a nickname for their father in their address book, named—of course—"dad". People thought they were sending email to their dad, when in fact it was going to DAD.

    The email address for sending mail to the entire division was quickly changed to something like "deskapps" or "dappdiv".

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