Steven Pemberton : Views and Feelings

July 1995

Things that Stay Us from the Swift Completion of Our Appointed Tasks

I expect it's the same for you, but since I've been involved explicitely with human-computer interaction, just by looking at a product I can often see faults in the user interface.

I recently saw an advert from a very famous brand of hifi systems, claiming that there was at last a hifi manufacturer who had considered the user, and that they were it, and this new hifi of their's was the answer to all hifi users' problems. And yet just by looking at the photograph of this wonder apparatus I could see 10 user-interface errors, including the sort of classic blunders that you and I eat for breakfast. For instance, they had made the system "consistent" by making the CD player and cassette player work identically with a little drawer that slides out, so you couldn't see which one was which except by opening the drawer first (or from the fact that the play, rewind and other buttons were in a different order on the two players ­ so much for consistency...)

I noticed recently that every email that came from a frequent correspondent of mine came with the words OFFICE MEMO in big letters at the top. Knowing that she would never do this herself, I guessed it was her mailer that did it, and so wrote to her to ask which it was, so that I could avoid it in the future.

She wrote back to me with the mailer's name. "If anybody offers it you, run as fast as you can in the opposite direction. ... (I get very passionate on this topic ­ I have to take a breath and calm down.)".

I get a lot of email. If I go away for a week, then it takes me more than a day to catch up. In order to try and reduce the amount of work I have to do dealing with this much mail I have tried very many mailers, and I can honestly say I have never found one that does the job well. There are many that are adequate, many that do some things well, but I always end up cursing them for their stupidities and inadequacies.

I have come to the conclusion that no designer of any mailer I  have ever used has ever done a requirements or task analysis, and I doubt that they have ever done much in the way of user testing. But above all, I'm sure that no author of any of those mail programs has ever received large amounts of mail. It just can't be so, because they make life so difficult. If you receive small amounts of email any mailer will do.

I know many other people who receive lots of email, and it is clear that several of them are swamped, and can't really cope with the amount they get (at least, I assume that's why they never reply). Ten years ago I received at most a dozen mails a day. Now it is an order of magnitude more. We read regularly that the net is growing expenentially with a doubling time of 8 months. This means that in ten years time (or will it be 2 years time?) I can expect to receive 1000 emails a day. One mail every minute and a half spread over a day. One mail every half minute spread over a working day. How will anyone be able to cope?

So what's so difficult about producing a decent mail program? Answer: Nothing. All that has happened with existing producers of mail programs is that they have made the classic user interface error par excellence: they've given the job to a programmer. Programmers are the sort of people who think that there's nothing really wrong with the vi editor that you can't get used to after a month or two.

Now don't get me wrong: I've nothing against programmers. Some of my best acquaintances are programmers. There's nothing wrong with a programmer that you can't get used to after a month or two (as long as you can put up with being told all evening about how there's nothing really wrong with the vi editor that you can't get used to after a month or two).

But I'm getting desperate. I'm told by those in the know (students) that designing a mailer is a standard exercise set to students by their teachers. Isn't this proof that those teachers are desperate about their mailers too? I'm seriously considering designing and building my own mailer, on the grounds that the time it will take will be amply repaid after a week or two reading mail.

Anyone want to join me? Or do you want to read 1000 mails a day?

Luke and Ophelia

First published in the SIGCHI Bulletin, July 1995

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