Wednesday, September 20, 2006

How friendly are "User-Friendly" applications?

Not too many years ago, computer software was just green text on a blank screen with a bleeping cursor. As soon as PCs became popular the term "user-friendly" was born and carried out by the marketing departments of software vendors. What they were trying to do is make a computer and its software more appealing to the average person: colors, icons, tooltips and helpboxes were deployed. In the same spirit, they enforced to the companies' development department an abstraction policy which kept "technical stuff" hidden so that the software users were not confused.

So far everything seems ok and the intension itself is pretty right (make PCs accessible to everyone) but something went wrong on the way. Software that keeps its technical part hidden should operate perfectly (aka bug-free) at the same time. Otherwise when you face trouble, you can't trace it back to its source and fix it/find more about it.

Today's example is Windows Live Messenger but this goes for all software that tend to be "user-friendly". I had this problem: if I chose for the program to remember my password, I was logged in but my contact list was not updated correctly. All my contacts were located under "Other Contacts" and my custom-made categories remained emtpy. I checked with my Hotmail account to make sure that my address book was in order but for some reason the Messenger could not synchronize. Then I tried removing the "remember-me" option so I had to type-in my password every time and, guess what, the synchronization was done perfectly! I mean... omg!

This behavior would stumble the average user who would just say "Windows Sucks". On the other hand, I quickly suspected that in the first case, some local caching was done (save my password, maybe some profile info and stuff) while in the second, all information was downloaded from the server. Yet I had no way of fixing this (clear the cache). At least not from within the Messenger. How friendly is that?

The programmers, in an attempt to keep me away from "technical stuff", have hidden (in fact scattered) all program files. As far as I can tell there's "Program Files", "Documents and Settings\MyUsername\Application Data" and "Documents and Settings\MyUsername\Local Settings\Application Data". Of course these folders are marked hidden so, in normal circumstances, they are invisible to you.

I had to use Tools > Folder Options to View All Hidden Files and Folders, then search my way through Application Data and find a folder titled "Windows Live Contacts". Still I wasn't sure it was the solution to my problem. Anyway, I deleted it and restarted Messenger. WoW! It seemed I'd hit jackpot! The synchronization was done therefore I had just deleted the problematic cached files. Does anything from the above seem "user-friendly" to you?

To sum up, hidding debug options and program structure from the user means you are absolutely sure about your software's well-behavior. Otherwise at least give us a chance in fixing your stupid mistakes ourselves!

No comments: