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Minotaur: When Computer Knows Best?

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Harold Thimbleby criticises the urge to upgrade.

"Problems over a baby's eating often dominate the lives of whole families for months on end. You can do a great deal to avoid them by cultivating a relaxed and accepting attitude now." Penelope Leach, Baby and Child

When I drive down the road in my 20 year old Land Rover and a fast car overtakes me - almost everything overtakes me - I don't get overwhelmed with an urge to upgrade to a more modern car that can go faster or which is more comfortable. Nor, when I do day dream about buying a replacement, do I worry that perhaps a new car would not be able to turn left at the roundabout just up the road from my house, something I currently do every day. Most of us use cars and we expect them to be reliable and do a job.

The other day I was using Microsoft Word 98. This is a leading word processor, and it is made by the leading software company in the world. First, why did I upgrade from my old Word 5.1, which I had been happily using? I had been getting text from people which I couldn't read, and I was incompatible. And Word 98 promised lots of new features for me. I felt I was being overtaken by faster people! I succumbed and bought Word 98 - but I delayed a few weeks before I finally installed it. You see, I was worried that perhaps it wouldn't work, and I might lose some of my existing work. If I had being thinking about buying a Toyota instead of my Land Rover, I would not have worried about whether I could still use the same route to work. Cars are reliable. Computer programs are unreliable.

Would you know? My entire article (which I'm writing now) has just gone into italic everywhere! Somehow we have got ourselves into a state of mind where we have to have the latest, yet almost completely useless, unreliable, expensive programs. What is going on? This culture we are in affects both us, as consumers of the products, and the manufacturers who don't seem able to do any better. The warranty that comes with Word makes you wonder whether they believe their product is worth having. To the maximum extent permitted by law, Microsoft disclaims all warranties, and they claim not to be liable for any consequential loss, and in any case to no greater amount than you spent on the software. What would happen if you bought a car for £5000 and it went out of control and killed someone? Would the car manufacturer say, well their liability was limited to £5000 (and then only if your car broke in the first 90 days)? Moreover, Microsoft still say they are not liable, even if they have been warned about the possibility of problems. That's rather like car manufacturers saying they are immune from liabilities even if they have been warned that all their cars go out of control on sharp corners. Car manufacturers are in fact far more responsible, and they make better products than Microsoft do, with better warranties.

I wouldn't wish it on anyone, but it is time we had an accident that exposed software warranties for the exploitative, unnecessary, pathetic things they are. I'm not specially getting at Microsoft; they are the market leader and they are entirely typical of software manufacturers. One might say they are an easy target because they are so pervasive. The problem certainly isn't all Microsoft's fault. Why do I buy software I don't like? Why does anyone?

hour before it crashes on me. Why do I put up with it? Why does anyone put up with such expensive technology that is clearly so unreliable? I think humans are wired up to respond to helplessness. When a baby screams in the middle of the night, you get up. If you don't go and sort out your baby, your genes aren't going to last very long! Disney make their films more appealing by using cartoon tricks, like giving the animals babyish faces, to make us go all sentimental over them. Computer programs are like this. They are helpless and they need help all the time.

One reason is lock-in. If I don't have the latest version of Word I can't communicate with my colleagues. So I am pressurised to buy upgrades. In turn my slower colleagues now have my latest version to catch up with, so they upgrade ä and so on. Microsoft know this, and Word 98, although it can read recent versions of Word, cannot read some older ones. So now I am putting pressure on sensible people to upgrade so they can talk to me! I find that I can use Microsoft Word 98 for about an If computer programs behaved like adults and still failed, you'd get them fixed - like we get broken cars fixed. But seeing as computers behave like babies, when they fail we help them, we cosset them, we put more RAM in their mouths, we buy new software for them, we get them a bigger disc to rattle. Microsoft know this. One of the most irritating features of Word is the so-called Assistant. This is a cartoon character that pops up and makes inane comments. It is draw in the best Disney tradition to make it look appealing - I'm sure some people love it! But it pops up and says "You look like you are writing a letter, would you like some help?" And it doesn't have a clue. I want to get on with some work, and I have this idiot trying to out-wit me. When I use Word, I spend more of my time fixing problems Word has created than doing my own work!

Here are some simple examples. I am writing a notice to be pinned up. I write the headline, and then start the next line. As I type the second word of the second line, Word makes a clicking sound, and the first letter of the line gets capitalised. I don't want it capitalised, thanks! That's one of the simpler problems to explain. It irritates me, but I understand what's going on. Paragraph indentation is a problem that really irritates me, and (despite having a PhD in computing science) I have no idea what is going on. I can type a tab, and it doesn't seem to be there, but the entire paragraph gets indented. I can type a tab somewhere else on the screen, then drag it to where I want it, and it works. But if I type the tab directly where I want it, weird things happen. Or if I have a table, I can set tab stops, but I can't actually type any tabs. Instead, tabs take you to the next cell in the table.

Or if I type a World Wide Web address (you can find out more about where I work at http://www.cs.mdx.ac.uk), Word spots it is a Web address and suddenly underlines it and changes it to blue, and then if I try to edit the address because it is mistyped, there's a delay and Word tells me it can't make a network connection. It's trying to be too smart, in my view.

My children are used to me complaining about idiotic computers, and they wondered whether I was just seething as usual, so I showed them how Word handles pictures. In moments they were laughing: it is impossible to understand what Word is thinking of when it moves pictures around when you try and put them where you want them. You get one thing right, and then Word thinks of a better place for something else to go to. There's a quirky noise, and your layout is ruined yet again.

It's worth classifying bugs. There are undeniable bugs - like when Words starts flashing table cells in rapid cycles, and the entire computer stops working. Or when it repeatedly puts up an error message and then crashes. (I do wonder whether they tested the version of Word that I use. It only took me minutes to have it dying in convulsions in front of me. I would be embarrassed to sell software like this.) Or you can 'type behind' windows because they won't go away, and evidently Word has forgotten all about them.

There are inconsistent bugs, like the various schemes for setting colours: you can set a character to one of 16 colours (displayed in a column); you can set a paragraph to one of 40 colours (displayed in a rectangle); and the background colour you can set to anything out of around 16777216 colours (displayed in a hexagon or rectangle: you choose). Why use different techniques? Were the different parts of Word written by different people who didn't talk to each other; or was Word designed by someone who thought variety was the spice of life; or is it just a big mistake? Had the designers failed to read the standard user interface guidelines, which tell you how to do this sort of thing in a simple, standard way? I tend to think that Microsoft have carefully worked out the minimal amount of effort to put into software so that they can still sell it at a profit; but as the standard aphorism goes, why suspect a conspiracy when incompetence is more likely?

I could easily go on, and on, and on. You'd get bored, and I'd want Microsoft to pay me for my hard work explaining their bugs. I'm sure some people who do routine tasks all day get used to it, and probably enjoy it. That's fine. But how do people like me, who just want to type rather than play games, switch off all the smart ass features? How do they work around the less satisfactory bits?

A salesman could easily learn how to make a very impressive demonstration of Word. Suppose I practised writing a letter in just the right way so that Word's idiot actually did the right thing - well, the result would be very impressive. You could watch a demonstration like that and say, wow I wish my word processor could help me write letters like that. The problem, of course, is that Word can help you write letters like that. Just that it obstructs you if you don't want to write letters precisely like that.

Then there is cognitive dissonance. The theory of cognitive dissonance is supposed to explain why people gamble. You lose money, and no sane person would want to do that. So you think to yourself: continuing to gamble, and losing money don't make sense. How can you save face? Well, you think, you like gambling. If you like gambling, then it's alright to lose money. If you like doing it, do it again! Lose some more money ä and you've got more cognitive dissonance to sort out. So you must really like gambling. This line of reasoning spirals out of control for some people. I like my Land Rover because I've put a lot of work into it - that might be irrational and costly - but I'd rather say I like the Land Rover than admit I'm wasting my time on it!

Microsoft Word catches out us the same way. It's such a silly and difficult to use program that we are stupid if we continue to use it. But we're not stupid, so we'd rather go around telling people how much we like Word. Indeed, some experts on Word get so much satisfaction out of helping people that they confuse the satisfaction of helping people for the stupidity of anything creating the need for so much help in the first place! Who needs help using a pencil and paper? Something as basic as a word processor ought to be as easy to use as any other everyday tool. I don't need to keep ringing up the AA to ask how to get my car to turn left, and computers ought to be as easy as that.

"It is the patient mother who plods steadily on, never expecting too much of a mere infant, who has the greatest success; the strict disciplinarian who makes such a "to do" about a perfectly natural function takes far longer to train her baby and may make him feel unloved. It is most important for a child to feel that he himself is loved although his behaviour may not be approved of."
Margaret Myles, Textbook for Midwives

What sort of advice do advisors give us? It is usually along the lines of "to do that, just press the control-twiddle key." Gosh, it's really easy when you know how - and you are made to feel like a fool for not knowing something so utterly trivial. You didn't know which key to press! But reflecting a bit, there was no way to know this piece of 'trivial' knowledge until you were told. So, really, it isn't trivial. Microsoft have made Word deeply non-intuitive. People who earn a living selling word processor advice exploit this, and we become dependent on them, because we don't like to be thought fools. We even go out an buy books called "Word for Dummies." Are we dummies, or what? When a baby cries, you give it a dummy. And computers suck.

Worse is to come. These word processor advisors get a reputation for knowing about word processors. Next they are being asked by their bosses for advice on which word processor to standardise on. Guess which they recommend.

"Babies can be fascinating to children."
M·ire Messenger Davies, The Breastfeeding Book

Most people who complain just seem to have an axe to grind, and you are advised to stand well back from their ravings. In my case, I have an axe to grind, and I have some trees to chop. All software manufacturers could easily do a better job by adopting one very simple strategy. If they wrote user manuals (you may notice that they are reluctant to do even this) and they find themselves explaining a feature with hedges and excuses, and "before you do that, do this" then they should try redesigning their program so that the manual can be written more clearly.

For example, page 39 of Word's introductory manuals asks "Want to hide the Assistant?" Yes I do! The suggestion given is: "Hold down CONTROL, click the Assistant window, then click Hide Assistant." Three steps? The first of these steps isn't obvious; why the control key; how are you supposed to work that out for yourself without reading the manual from cover to cover? Why not say "click on the close box," like anything else you want to hide? Then there is only one rule for everything.

Or the manual asks "Having trouble getting a grip on the margin boundary?" Its answer includes the admission that "it's easy to grab the markers by mistake." So why did Microsfot make them so fiddly? There are some things that are never properly explained. For example, in the real world when you move something up, left, down, and finally back right you end up where you started. This simple rule does not work in Word; you can move the cursor up, left down, right - but you will be very lucky if you have any idea where it ends up. (If you are at the end or start of a line, in a table or a tab, the cursor keys do different things.) The full explanation of what is going on would take pages. It is sheer, unnecessary complexity. There is, however, a simple design solution that is easy to understand - the cursor keys could work sensibly (in fact, this problem was identified and solved definitively twenty years ago). But not for Microsoft. Suppose Microsoft had decided to explain how the cursor really works. I think they would have been embarrassed into making the behaviour a lot, lot simpler. Or, if not, we would all have seen what an awful system it is, and they would have lost out to better competition.

The different colour choice mechanisms (mentioned above) is another example. Why have so many mechanisms when one or two might do? Why have any, when the computer has a standard approach that every other application uses? Why have different approaches forced on you in different places? The consequence is that the user manual has to be three times bigger than it need be. If the people who programmed Word were remotely connected with writing its manuals, it would be a lot simpler to use because an honest and complete manual of the current design would embarrass them into seeing some sense. Sadly, Word comes on a CD in a box big enough to contain several big books - but no manual. I suppose the rudimentary booklets that are put in the book were the best Microsoft could do, given that they probably used Word themselves. Gosh, it is so easy to get cynical, once you start thinking about this collective insanity that gets us all so excited.

That Word has many colour choices when there is an established standard to do colour choices suggests many things. First, Microsoft's programmers are ignorant of the standard solutions, or they wilfully ignore them. Secondly, they don't talk to each other. Thirdly, they do not care about consistency. Fourthly, they waste time reinventing wheels - another reason why Word is so expensive!

When you read a computer manual and it says silly things, please remember that it needn't have been like that. Somebody designed the program, and they did it a silly way. Don't be embarrassed that you can't understand Word; it isn't your fault, it's theirs. The way Microsoft Word works is not inevitable, and it could easily be made better if only we took a stand. Trouble is, I've got no spare time now I've got a new word processor. (Still, I'll have a break from it all on January 1, 2000 when I'll be glad I have Land Rover without computer-controlled emission systems. Hopefully, the millennium bug will be that major problem that shocks everyone in to the real challenges of getting computers to grow up.)

Author Details

Prof Harold Thimbleby
Computing Science
Middlesex University
Bounds Green Road
LONDON, N11 2NQ
Email: harold@mdx.ac.uk

Date published: 
19 December 1998

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How to cite this article

Harold Thimbleby. "Minotaur: When Computer Knows Best?". December 1998, Ariadne Issue 18 http://www.ariadne.ac.uk/issue18/minotaur/


article | by Dr. Radut