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On Adapting to new systems

So yesterday I wrote a post about why I brought my Win7 convertible with me but not my iPad or android tablet.  That post has gotten several interesting comments, and one in particular inspired me to respond with this post.

The reader suggested that I just need time to learn how iOS does things. While this is true, one has to remember that the goal here is to get work done, not learn the vagaries and quirks of an OS.

I want to show you an example where expecting a user to learn a system is not only frustrating to the user but also a waste of time and wrong-headed, and thus a poor design decision. I’m not using this to refute the comment left on the other post; the situations are not parallel. But this example has bugged me for the longest time, and now is a good chance to gripe about it.

I’d like to show a problem I’ve found with Android file managers.

There are dozens of basic file managers for Android, and some of them share a flaw. They show a perfect graphic representation of the folder structure for whatever Android device they’re running on.  That folder structure looks like Linux, and that’s a problem.

The flaw is that they assume that the user knows the basic file structure for Linux. For example, the SD card is located in a specific sub-sub-folder from the root directory. The internal Flash or HD is located in another sub-folder. I don’t know where they are located, nor does the average user.

Do you really expect a user to have to learn this stuff just to move files around? I don’t. Frankly, it’s a waste of my time. I want to get work done. Okay, this isn’t a very difficult thing to learn, but I don’t use Linux that much. I don’t want to have to dredge the depths of my memory just so I can find the SD card.

Fortunately, there is a better way. Some file managers disguise the folder structure of Android with an extra interface layer that lets users find the SD card, Flash storage, or HD without having to go digging.

It’s a pity more app developers don’t think of these kind of things.  They’re supposed to design an interface that is familiar to users, not force users to learn their new one. And yes, that is a rule of interface design.

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Mike Cane April 4, 2011 um 7:32 am

"Users don’t care. They just want things to work."

The other thing they don’t do is cleanup filenames. So you get things with their extensions explicitly shown by default.

The entire idea of files is FUBARed to begin with because no one made any provisions for most files to carry metadata and for file selectors to take advantage of that in a standardized way.

monopole April 4, 2011 um 9:32 am

All good, put out dumbed down file management apps as training wheels for now (like AOL was for the web). But let us folks who know the Linux file structure have our power tools.

Tyler April 4, 2011 um 2:38 pm

Good thing about the industry is that we all have choice! That’s why an all Apple, Google, or Microsoft, Linux world would be bad. They all create competition to better and improve their products (with a little bit of stealing). Things are better now than in the the 90’s when Microsoft ruled everything.

elmar April 4, 2011 um 7:26 pm

I read this article with interest as not all people are tech savy. They cannot "break""root" or "strip" for the life of them. All they want is something that works reasonably well, with no need for extensive training and will not be obsolete in 3 months. A lot of problems could be minimized with a decent, easy to understand users manual.

Nick Jamilla April 4, 2011 um 8:23 pm

I read the post and didn’t understand a thing. It was like a foreign language with certain nouns that I knew. LOL

@elmar: it would also help that user manuals were written by professional writers in the field; many seem to be written by computer geeks for other computer geeks.

dave blevins April 4, 2011 um 8:33 pm

If the user expects it to work, it does — which means the UI designer MUST 1) allow multiple methods to accomplish the same task, find a file, etc. and 2) learn the user’s method of working, not the other way around.

Krystian Galaj April 5, 2011 um 2:10 am

"While this is true, one has to remember that the goal here is to get work done, not learn the vagaries and quirks of an OS."
For many people, iOS is their first contact with any form of computer, even today. They learn to work with it, and then can’t understand why on Windows things are done differently, and so dismiss Windows as stupid and counterintuitive. I don’t think all users' methods of doing things can be incorporated in a single OS, when such methods are based on the whole philosophy of OS, for example assumption that files are located through folder tree vs a tag soup. Besides, each new method of doing the same thing takes up some swipe, tap or other way of interaction that could be used to enhance primary method.

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