Three Monkeys, Three Typewriters, Two Days

April 19, 2003

And some wonder why people hate computers....

Today I found myself walking home from campus, mentally comparing PDF (editable) versions of tax forms to paper versions. Without exception, the paper ones take a lot less time to read and fill out. The instruction booklets are easily skimmable, unlike PDF. Taking in the whole form at a glance or focusing on a particular part is a matter of minute, instinctive hand movements (compare this to zooming PDFs). There's no comparison between readability of printed text and text on a monitor, of course.

All well and good, but then I got to thinking about other computer programs I've used, not just Acrobat Reader. With the single exception of console video games, I find all of them less usable (from the "easy things should be easy and hard things possible" point of view) than I find a Form 1040 plus instruction booklet.

That's a scary thought to anyone who's ever looked at the 1040 instruction booklet.

At first glance, the comparison is unfair—the paper 1040 relies on skills that it's taken me years (if not decades) to learn. But learning those skills (reading, writing, skimming for content) is something that has incredible breadth of application. The learning that has to happen to make computer programs more usable tends to only be applicable to that one program...

I still haven't figured out what it is about console games that tends to make them so much more intuitive and usable... It makes sense, from a business standpoint -- no one will play a game that's not a pleasure to play. Do game designers carefully analyze the user interaction? Perhaps they could share some tricks with other software authors...

Posted by bzbarsky at April 19, 2003 9:32 PM