Are We Always New At Everything?

The trend in Microsoft’s products for the past 15 years or more has been toward making things easy for the people who have never used the software before. Of course, as time goes on, there are fewer and fewer of those people.

The Ribbon is introduced in the Help file thus:

And if you’ve used previous versions of Word, you’ll wonder where the menus and toolbars have gone. That’s the beauty of the Ribbon. No longer do you have to wander through the maze of menus, submenus, and toolbars searching for what you want.

No, instead we now have to wander through a bewildering array of Ribbon tabs and drop-down menus. It’s as if the Office 2007 design team didn’t realize that everyone who’s been using Word for more than a year or two already knows their way around Word’s menu structure. It’s as if someone re-arranged my local neighborhood so that I “no longer have to wander through” the streets I already know. Indeed, SecretGeek finds the Ribbon so hard to find things in, he suggests that the Ribbon should include its own search feature so people can find features that are hidden among all those tabs!

It’s not just Microsoft. Check out Qwiki, “the information experience”. It is very clearly optimized to look cool in a demo. A demo, of course, is the ultimate in “aimed at new users” — it’s aimed at people who aren’t even users yet, but might become users. And user interface guru Bruce Tognazzini has been decrying the OS X Dock for years, partly on the basis that “It makes for a great demo, but not a great product.”

Interestingly, while I was prepping this post for publication, I became aware of Paul Miller’s article, “The Condescending UI”. It excoriates many of the very same problems in Apple’s and Microsoft’s recent OSes, saying that “these new tricks are horrible and offensive. They’re not only condescending and overwrought, they’re actually counter-functional.”

It’s as if usability tests and design reviews are all conducted with people who have never used the software in question before… and those who already have some domain knowledge are left out in the cold, forced to discard their knowledge every few years.

Are we really always newbies at everything? Or do developers even believe that we are? Or, heck, do marketers and product managers actually believe that we’re all still newbies? Or that there’s some vast, untapped market of prospective new users out there, just waiting for an even more dumbed-down interface before they’ll buy their first computer?

Just in case anyone out there believes any of those things, please, let me be the one to disabuse you of the notion. Anyone who doesn’t already use a computer is not ever going to. The only exception here is people under about 10 years old, and they’re not scared of unfamiliar UIs — to them, every UI is new, and they’re eager to learn new things. Stop dumbing things down, and stop sacrificing your long-time users’ skills in the name of changing things just for the hell of it.

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