Why are companies so worried about retraining costs?

Remember, most people do not view the computer as a world to be explored. It is merely a means to an end. So they learn the five steps they need to follow, and if they can't do them, they get stuck. "I hit Alt+Tab like I always do, to switch to another program, but instead of switching, this strange window showed up. Help!" Or "I print the document by clicking the Actions menu and selecting Print, but now there is no Actions menu. Help!" Changes to the user interface also mean that screenshots need to be re-taken and training materials reprinted.

In a sense, people act computerlike when they are in front of a computer!

I behaved the same way when I was working at product support earlier this year. The Product Support division has a system for tracking calls and issues, and we were given a handout with instructions like, "To transfer an issue to XYZ, click Transfer, then select XYZ from the list." Now imagine if the Transfer button weren't there any more (maybe it got moved to a sub-dialog) or if XYZ was no longer on the list (perhaps it got combined with QRS). I would have been stuck. I'm not going to go hunting around looking for the Transfer button; if I click the wrong button I might create a corrupted record in their database and create more problems than I was trying to solve. So when I couldn't follow the instructions, I called for help.

There are people who argue that, "Well, in order to use a computer, you should be required to learn how a computer works." Pshaw. I drive a car and yet I don't know how a carburetor works, what the optimum fuel/air ratio is, or even how many cylinders my engine has. I don't care. All that matters to me is that I step on the pedal and it goes. We don't require people to be auto mechanics before they get a drivers license (at least, not in the United States; other countries may be different). Why should we expect them to understand how a computer works before they are allowed to send email?

Comments (27)
  1. Frederik Slijkerman says:

    In the Netherlands, people are required to have a basic knowledge of how a car works and how to refill water and oil when getting a drivers license.

  2. MyNameHere says:

    Hey, on a totally unrelated issue how did XP end up with such a bad file search ui. Every time I want to search for some files I have to wait for the dog to finish scratching its arse. If we have to have animations can it at least be done on a different thread.

    Update – I’ve just found that I can get rid of the dog. It is still poor design.

  3. Alex says:

    Maybe they really miss the dog bad from bob

    that UI tried to address what Mr. Chen’s referring to, unfortunately UI is still way too difficult for everyone; me think.

  4. Agreed that you do not need to be a merchanic to get a drivers licence, but you do need to pass the learners and drivers test.

    Computers should be the same sort of thing,
    ie: this is a mouse, this is left click, this is right click and so on, so when people do ask for help and the techie says right click they do not write click.

  5. Anand says:

    But the difference is that any car you buy has the same set of controls(which look very similar). So once you learn driving you can drive any car…

    But in computers a Mac and a windows UI is completely different. Even in a single system, different programs behave differently and look different. We even have two button or three button mouse. Then add the scroll wheel, extra buttons. Can create major confusion

  6. Idiot says:

    Well, now you know what happens when the average user can’t find a menu item thanks to the personalized menus ‘feature’.

    I take it this ‘feature’ will be turned off by default in longhorn?

    I would think a good ui rule would be that if something is there today it should be there tomorrow, even if the program decides it is not being used.

    P.S Even as an experienced user I find this ‘feature’ bloody annoying. Did anyone seriously find this good in useability testing past the novelty value?

  7. Nekto says:

    I have been reading fun text on this subject (sorry for auto-translation from russian, but you’d get the main idea ;).
    Subject: It’s good that people drove automobiles not same way as they work on computers…
    (the Phone conversation of the Driver and Technics from technical support)

    Support: Support. Than we can help?
    The driver: This… The Machine at me is not got.
    Support: Clear. What mark at your machine, model, and year of release?
    The driver: And I… The horse-radish knows it! I have bought her in shop to go, whence to me to know…
    Support: Well-good, calm down. We shall try to do without this (Sigh) At you is gasoline in a tank?
    The driver: H’m… By Gasoline in a tank, you speak… And how I learn?
    Support: On the forward panel look. Where the arrow shows, on "E" or on "F"?
    The driver: And where the forward panel?
    Support: she is at once at the wheel if you sit in a driver’s armchair.
    The driver: And! I see… And here it is a lot of arrows, which of them to look?
    Support: Look at near to what it is written E or F. There the gaz station still can be drawn.
    The driver: Hey! I see. The arrow shows on a zero.
    Support: How on a zero?
    The driver: Aha. Directly on a zero. And near to an arrow it is written "x1000". It that model of my machine? Ex-thousand?
    Support: (a deep sigh with rolling up eyes) Is not present, it not fuel, it is a tachometer. It also should show on a zero if the machine is not got. The arrow of fuel usually more to the left and is less than a tachometer, and on it should be written "E", then a semicircle, then "F".
    The driver: Aha. I see! An arrow in the middle between E and F.
    Support: Perfectly! At least we know that fuel at you is. Now let’s check up the accumulator. See a rudder?
    The driver: yea.
    Support: Press directly in the middle…
    The Driver: (it is audible loud "beeeeeeeeep") OH! She and should do it?
    Support: (rolling up eyes) All is normal, is your signal. If it works, all means with the accumulator at you normally. Now let’s try get the machine.
    The driver: So, a pancake, I speak that is not got. Therefore also I call, a cudgel.
    Support: (creaking teeth) And all ???? let’s try again! Press on a pedal of coupling, press a brake, and turn a key.
    The driver: Oh-oh! Give under the order. Where at me " a pedal of gearing "?
    Support: COUPLINGS… Under a rudder at the left. Have found?
    The driver: Has found.
    Support: Press on it against the stop. So. Now see on the right under a rudder two pedals?
    The driver: yea.
    Support: Left from them – a brake. Press it. Have pressed?
    The driver: Has pressed.
    Support: Now turn a key in ignition.
    The driver: And how I whould turn a key if both hands are already borrowed from me?
    Support: Forgive?
    The driver: the Left hand I press on gearing, the right hand on a brake how I should you turn keys, is asked?
    Support: (chokes with a laughter). So, let’s try all over again, only this time on a pedal press legs.
    The driver: Legs? And unless so it is possible?
    Support: (still choking with a laughter) It is possible.
    The driver: tryed… Oh, and so it is more convenient… That you to me at once have not told… (fuss) is audible. Has pressed.
    Support: Now turn a key in ignition against the stop.
    The driver: And where at me ignition?
    Support: In the basis of a rudder, on the right.
    The driver: Hmm. At me the aperture is, and the key in it is not present.
    Support: Well so insert it.
    The driver: what?
    Support: (losing patience) the Key of ignition!
    The driver: And how I learn which from me a key of ignition?
    and so on…


  8. hurcane says:

    I think there is a flaw in your analogy. The "Transfer" menu option in software is not the same as understanding how the carburetor works.

    Cars have the same user interface issues as computers. You get used to driving a particular model of car. You become comfortable with the location of the lights, the wipers, the cruise control, the environmental controls, the mirror adjustments, the sound system, etc.

    Your car dies and you buy the current version of the same model. The cruise control layout changed, the sound system is on the steering wheel, the mirror adjustment went from the dashboard to the door panel, and other controls have been moved around.

    You don’t have to know how the engine works, but you still have to know how the car controls work. If you don’t know how the light controls work on the new model, you’re going to be in trouble when it gets dark, and you may corrupt your own body’s molecular data, as well as the molecular data of somebody else.

    The analogy is better when you relate the transfer function of the software to a control function of the car.

  9. Raymond Chen says:

    People are more willing to experiment with unfamiliar car controls because they have high confidence that pushing the wrong button won’t make the car explode. People have less confidence of the same in computers because – well – it isn’t true. Have you ever clicked the wrong button / typed the wrong thing and ended up losing all your data? I have. Many times.

    PS, I hate the disappearing menu options too.

  10. hurcane says:

    Then we should be making our software more like cars, shouldn’t we? Perhaps we shouldn’t create a feature that causes us to lose our data. I know that Alan Cooper has been trying to get software designers to create simpler and safer computer interfaces for years. The Recycle bin in Windows is a good example of this (although I usually bypass it with Shift-Delete).

  11. Eldo says:

    Actually learning to drive a different car can be tough at times.

    I got my initial license in India and the car I used to drive did not have a heater or a defrost position for the went. Both of these are not needed in my place of birth.

    It rained heavily on the first day, that I drove my car in the US. I drove my car for almost 10 minutes with out seeing the road, since I did not know how the defrost controls worked ! I had to stop the car by the curb and read the manual painfully to figure out those things.

  12. Peter Torr says:

    Although we should strive to make things easier, all objects that people interact with have the same problem — computers, cars, ball-point pens, telephones, coffee machines, photocopiers, etc. In Australia, in order to get petrol (gasoline) into your car you just lift the nozzle off the pump, put it in your tank, and hold down the "trigger." When I came to the US I stood by my hire car (rental car) for about 5 minutes wondering why nothing was happening. I had to sheepishly go into the store and ask the attendent why the pump wasn’t working. Turns out in the US there’s a special switch you have to throw before the pump will work.

  13. cjm says:

    Talking about good/bad UIs, I really like the Start menu in XP. I almost always find the programs I want on the MRU list, and the MRU isn’t a dumb list, like if I just start a program I never use, and I use it once, it won’t kick off another item on the menu. I really like that.

  14. Mike says:

    The comparison to cars is an excellent one, especially these days as more and more computerized features are making their way into automobiles. I’d like to present the new BMW 7-series as an example of how changing interfaces confounds people – the new BMW 7-series uses a knob in place of the shifter (called iDrive) that controls about 700 different functions. The knob controls a selector on an LCD built into the dash, and you twist, tilt and push the knob to navigate the menu for almost all functions (including major functions such as shifting into drive, reverse, park, choosing radio stations, and controlling heating & A/C, just to name a few). Read reviews on these cars, and you’ll notice that people either say "I got used to it", or they’re confounded and irritated because they know what they want to do – but their interface is completely changed.

  15. What I find frustrating is when you do something by accident and a pop-up shows up to ask you if you really want to do that, but then the button for the most negative possible action (negative meaning you’re gonna lose all your data for instance) is highlighted AND the default action. So all it takes is an "enter" or a "space" and your screwed. I happened to me lots of times that my arm or hand hits the mouse, so it moves the focus to something else, while I was typing something. I usually look at the keyboard while typing (can’t type blind) so I won’t notice it. Then my normal sentence turns out the be the (almost) exact sequence of keys to do "Shut down imporant app, without saving very important data".
    I also like the "Are you sure?" pop-ups on MacOS X. They don’t say something like: "Quiting will lose your data, do you wish to quit without saving? [yes], [no], [cancel]". But they say: "Quiting will lose your data, do you wish to quit without saving? [quit and lose data], [Don’t quit]". Much more clear.

  16. Michael Weiss says:

    I think non-standard UIs are getting worse in this "Internet" age. Traditional software UIs often follow familiar designs, many OS have guidelines that developers (should) follow. Menus, Toolbars, keystrokes, etc…

    BUT, look at most web sites. HTML gives an incredible amount of layout control with very little development cost… which means I have to hunt around for the "printer-friendly" button on sites like mapquest, and the look again on cnn, and again on….

  17. Aryeh Sanders says:

    I’ve heard that in the early days of automobiles, people did need to be their own mechanics. Although nowadays you don’t need to know about carburetors to drive, that doesn’t mean that it was always the case. Computers are still primitive enough that it’s reasonable to insist that people have a basic understanding of such things as directory structure, because they are likely to have problems using their machine if they don’t.

  18. Hal O'Brien says:

    Unfortunately, the analogy to automobiles is remarkably poor.

    We really only want an automobilie to do one task: Convey us from place to place. You’re right, there’s no real reason why someone *needs* to know how the nuts and bolts of how that happens, although it can be very useful (not only does the Netherlands have more rigorous testing procedures for getting a license, last I heard the driving test in Germany is something like 4 hours.)


    But we ask computers to do so *many* things. Juggle numbers around (sometimes financial, sometimes scientific, radically different interfaces on each). Communicate with other people — in text, photos, and voice. Manipulate sounds, and images, and video. In some cases, remotely control other devices. Read to the blind.

    The day they make a car/saw mill/lathe/telegraph/dessert topping/floor wax, *then* the car analogy might hold up.

  19. I have to agree with Jeroen-bart Engelen. Why don’t the buttons in dialogs state what the button does, instead of the answer to a question that many people do not read in the dialog itself? Beginners do not read anything, and even professionals get used to the same dialogs and assume that the question is the same when the dialog appears at the same time that it always has in the past. It is the result of basic learning functions of the brain. Since you can’t change how the brain works, you must solve the problem that people are simply not going to read what the dialog has to say. [yes], [no], and [cancel] should never appear on buttons. [quit and lose data] and [don’t quit] is definitely much more clear. I have heard this argument time and time again, for years, and it appears that Microsoft hasn’t gotten the point. Did this fail horribly in user tests or has it even been tried?

  20. Markus K says:

    The driving test in Germany consists in a theoretical part (should be finished in less than four hours though) where you demonstrate that you know who has right of way in weird situations, how many metres it will take you to stop from a given speed, etc, and either half an hour or one hour of practical test (it seemed quite long at the time but it’s many years ago).

    Anyone who thinks a car’s user interface cannot be subverted has never tried to shift gears with the door handle in a right-hand drive car.

    Many people use computers. Some spend a lot of time learning much about it, some spend a small amount of time focused on the specific steps to perform a specific task and nothing else. Some pick it up easily and some find it very confusing. I’ve had people who thought they were running a spreadsheet in MS Mail because they’d clicked on an e-mail after all. The user interface has to cope with and be helpful for everyone.

    I guess one thing to focus on is to minimise the possibilities of doing damage, or even worse, of doing damage that can’t be undone.

  21. pdq says:

    I’m with you Markus with the shifting gears with the door handle. It’s even worse when climbing into a car in the UK after a 13 hour flight from california.

    More on topic. One thing I fear is people will take advantage of all the neat features of longhorn’s ui. As an analogy, when people first started to use desktop publishing where you could do stuff with lots of fonts, every newsletter started looking like a ransom note. I’m afraid if you give people Flash like features, you will soon get spinning menus everywhere.

  22. quanta says:

    It looks to be two factors:

    1. Computers are complicated, and their interfaces inconsistent.
    2. Employee training is learning by rote, not learning by concept, so they know how to do something, but not for what reason.

    To make another analogy, consider the lowly door handle on a door. They are all different shapes, but we can all intuitively deduce that if said door handle can be grasped by the hand, then the action of pulling will open the door. We understand the concept of pulling open a door, so we are not phased when the interface is slightly different at every door we meet.

    But even the door suffers from poor design at times – some doors do not swing easily, some doors have grasping handles even though they can only be pushed, etc.

  23. mike says:

    If you have kids, you probably know that they can learn even complex series of commands in order to accomplish what they want to do. Someone proved even illiterate children can learn to use a GUI without instruction: http://news.bbc.co.uk/1/hi/sci/tech/1502820.stm. Adults tend to learn more slowly precisely because they want a mental model of what’s going on. However, if the task really is only to send email (think grandma), there’s no need to master more than a few basic techniques.

  24. Centaur says:

    A common door can be opened in two ways: pulling from outside or pushing from inside (or the other way round, but that is contrary to safety rules). However, opening is not the only action associated with the door; often we need to close it, too. And if a door is opened from inside by pushing, it would be closed by pulling, and that’s what the grasping handle is for.

    The above may not be true for some doors such as turning doors, but they usualy have no handles at all.

  25. contour says:

    Hey, nice trolling buddy!

  26. Jim says:

    A better analogy might be an airplane UI. Very old, very simple airplanes can be flown safely by almost any experienced pilot — although they need to be familiar with how a carburetor works (carb ice). The most complex airplanes can be flown safely by almost any pilot experienced in flying heavy iron because of the high level of automation and excellent UI. It is the aircraft in the middle that requires the most knowledge to keep the shiny side up. Their UI has not kept up with their level of performance and their systems are not well integrated.

    Most "events" occur when something goes wrong and the pilot doesn’t respond correctly. Early on, the pilot was trained on all the systems so he could make decisions. Now the pilot is trained to respond to specific situations with a specific action.

    They know how an airplane flies, but if something breaks, they break out the manual.

  27. Markus K says:

    The door handle in my hotel room is round and needs to be twisted to open. 90% of visitors don’t get it.

    Maybe computers are /supposed/ to be easier to use than other things?

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