You me, UI and so on

It’s easy for those of us even of a slightly geeky disposition to lose sight of quite how uninterested most people are in technology, and so are disinclined to do any more thinking about it than is absolutely necessary.

If you’re reading this you fit somewhere along the geeky spectrum (nothing wrong with that), but this chasm between us and “most people” matters when it comes to understanding what’s likely to work or not. Anyone who’s been in IT support will have tales of “idiotic” user behaviour, and some of it really is hard to fathom: I still treasure the moment a few years ago when I was helping a friend get started on a computer, and I suggested she use the mouse to move the pointer across the screen, so she lifted the mouse to the screen.

But actually, why not? Why does a white arrow on a blue background pointing at the sky mean “one way street”? Sooner or later we have to learn what these symbols mean, and (at some level) the conceptual framework that underpins them, but before that knowledge is in place nothing can be taken for granted. I’ve recently been trying to introduce my mother to a smartphone, thinking she could benefit from the larger onscreen keyboard and number pad (she’d been using an ageing Nokia featurephone). I wasn’t surprised when she struggled with touchscreen operation, however intuitive it’s supposed to be, but I’d underestimated how she might be immediately baffled by a concept as apparently simple as a message thread.

It’s a given of good UI design that it shouldn’t get in the way, that it should allow users to operate the software in a way that feels natural to them, rather than forcing them to change. In practice it’s been at best a two way street. Bryan Appleyard in The Brain is Wider than the Sky is very good about the way automated response systems in call centres are designed to make us “machine readable”. You could say this only reflects the current limitations of machine intelligence, but I suspect it reflects something more basic about the way humans and technologies connect.

All of this is by way of setting some context for the discussions that will follow. I’m not a coder or an electronic engineer. I’m going to be writing about what it is to use computers as essential working tools (with some leisure activity thrown in here and there).

These reflections will be influenced by the fact that for the moment at least I’m working almost entirely within the Microsoft “ecosytem” (as we must call these things). I have a reasonably powerful laptop as my main machine, connected to a larger screen on my desk; I have a smaller Asus Transformer hybrid, essentially a 10 inch tablet with an attachable keyboard, which I use when I’m out and about; and a Lumia smartphone. All are running Windows 10 and talk nicely to each other, up to a point; one of the things I’ll be discussing here is Microsoft’s success or otherwise in developing an integrated, user-centric system. This seems to me the most interesting game in town, and one which will determine the future shape of the IT market.