In the comments to my article on Mac Word 6.0, Chris Hanson said, “I'm surprised it was that hard for Microsoft to discover what ‘Mac-like’ meant.”  Michael Tsai expressed a similar thought, in that he wonders why we needed to conduct focus groups to discover what “Mac-like” meant.  I’m afraid I wasn’t as clear as I could have been on this question.

At first blush, it’s easy to think, as both Chris and Michael suggest, that “Mac-like” is synonymous with adherence to Apple’s Human Interface Guidelines.  But, as Michael points out, Mac Word 5.x also violated a number of Apple’s HIG.  The thing we were grappling with was the fact that a number of users who had said, vociferously, that Mac Word 6.0 wasn’t “Mac-like” said nothing about Mac Word 5.x.  If both Mac Word 5.x and Mac Word 6.0 broke stride with Apple’s HIG, then these folks had to have something other than Apple’s HIG in mind when they complained about Mac Word 6.0.

We weren’t trying to figure out what the term “Mac-like” should mean.  We were trying to figure out what specific people, namely the collective body of Mac Word users, actually meant when they used the term.  Had we merely assumed that what they meant by the term is what the term ought to mean, then we’d have, essentially, repeated one of the mistakes that led to Mac Word 6.0 in the first place.  That’s why we needed to conduct the focus groups, hang out in newsgroups and talk to users about it.  And, when we did that, we discovered that most of these users really meant to say that Mac Word 6.0 departed too much from the way Mac Word 5.x did things.  To them, “Mac-like” and Mac Word 5.x were synonymous.  We were actually quite surprised to learn the extent to which we had come to define their over-all experience of using a Macintosh computer.

This is a mistake that we in the software industry make all too often.  We assume that casual, or even somewhat savvy, users mean the same thing we do when they use the terminology we use.  We assume they understand it at the same level we do.  That can be a fatal assumption.  We have to be more active listeners, we need to drill down to the specifics of what they mean when they use catch-all terms such as “Mac-like.”