Holy cow, I wrote a book!
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
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.
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
supported by years of usability research.
The National Trust of Scotland
two houses to let on the island of Fair Isle,
The two properties are available at a very reasonable rate
of only £300.
Although the National Trust does not promise a job, it points
out that there are skill shortages in construction and
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.)
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
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
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
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
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:
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
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...
I remarked earlier that
the creative director for the PDC rummaged through our offices looking
which was to be used in the opening PDC video to decorate a
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.
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.)
brief example of
using Excel's random number generator
reminded me that I had need for the random number generator
buzzword bingo cards.
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:
It's not beautiful, but it gets the job done.
ever-delayed Millennium Tower
finally been completed, five years late and £11 million over
But even opening day couldn't escape without its own glitches,
the project manager was trapped in a glass-walled lift for over an hour,
engineers to come and rescue him.
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
One thing you can count on is that when faced with the collection
of games available,
for some reason,
they always pick
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.
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
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.
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".