February 6, 2007

Reality Distortion

Filed under: digital — mhoye @ 7:27 pm

I’m sure that if you’re inside the bounds of civilization you saw the Apple keynote a little while back, where Steve Jobs announced the iPhone. All the usual things that get said about new Jobs-driven Apple products have already been said, so I’m not going to rehash them. I’m also hardly an authoritative voice on usability or human-factors design (though I can point you to some guys, if you’ve got a pressing need for genuine expertise) but still, I do have a few things to say; I was going to start out by talking about Steve Jobs’ reality distortion field, but the more I thought about it, the less I had to say about that. He’s a great communicator. Thank you, I’ll be here all night. Try the veal.

But one aspect of narrow-minded tribalism that I’ve seen a lot of recently is that criticism of the tribe is one of the privileges of membership; you might know your mom’s cooking sucks, but you’d get angry at anyone outside your family who says so. You know that your government is a corrupt, kleptocratic oligarchy but the foreigners sure don’t get to say so; love it or leave it! You might know, on some level, that the various hardships and indignities you endure as a Windows user are not the way it should be, but fuck those smug Mac users for thinking there should be an easier way, and, well, just screw them.

And if you’re a Linux user, I mean, God help us all.

So, people want their pain to mean something. And I’m right there with you, I can totally sympathize, but look: the fact of the matter is that not everyone who gets speared in the side gets to be Jesus. Most of us just bleed out.

I have my own three-headed dog in the technology-martyr race, of course, but some days it feels like Apple are the only people in the world who give two shits about how users interact with computers. I mean, this horror show is the first thing that greets a Toshiba user who’s just dropped more than two grand on one of their laptops.

That screencap is the image that brought this whole post on.

Jesus Christ, look at it. Almost everything on that screen is either overtly threatening (Restore CDs! Backups! Security! Viruses! Risk!), implicitly threatening (Register with Toshiba? Install Norton?), completely confusing (What the hell is all that crap in the lower right corner?), or an advertisement (Toshiba Solutions? AOL? Why are they there?)

Come on. Why don’t you just stab your customers in the eyes? And this is before you even get into the snake pit that is trying to actually get anything done with a Windows machine. If you gave this brand new, top of the line Toshiba to Steve Jobs, he’d shit on it and then fire the entire division responsible for it.

So, the Nintendo DS goes from being awkward and clunky and selling OK to being smaller and sleeker in the form of the Lite, and all of a sudden Nintendo can’t make them fast enough, so much so that it’s considered noteworthy in Japan when a non-DS game becomes a top-ten seller. Back in World War 2, changing two identical levers on an airplane’s control panel so that the one that controls the wheels is wheel-shaped and the one that controls the wings is wing-shaped eliminates belly landings pretty much overnight. How people interact with their technology is pretty damn important, and making products that actually look like you’ve put some thought into that is pretty important, too.

Steve Jobs steps up, then, and says “this product you’ve been using all this time, it’s shit. There’s a better way. And here it is.” The people who get indignant, who really want all that annoyance and suffering they went through to mean something, they call it a reality-distortion field and sneer at the cultists. The people who want all the difficult peripheral bullshit that gets in their way to just go away, though, they’re sold.

Me, I use Linux, so I must like pain. But from my perspective, whether or not you think Macs are all that great, some days it seems like nobody else (well, almost) cares about ease of use in the slightest. Why is it that the preinstalled systems from Dell, Toshiba, HP and their ilk feel so close to completely unusable that getting anything accomplished is like playing Jenga in boxing gloves?


  1. In the L-13 Blanik, there’s a lever for the flaps, and one for the airbrakes. Countless people have bent their airplanes by confusing the two, and they’re located where you’re not likely to actually look at them when grabbing them. (Do you look at ths shifter in your car?)

    To prevent further mishaps, we’ve installed a French Tickler on the Lever of Danger. It works surprisingly well.

    Comment by Quotation — February 6, 2007 @ 11:19 pm

  2. That Toshiba opening screen is… something, all right. On the one hand, it wouldn’t faze me, although it would irritate me almost as much as it irritates you; on the other hand, the only reason why it wouldn’t faze me is that I’ve been in the internals of just enough computers not to be scared stiff by that display, and anyone who hasn’t…

    Also, I have to remark that the spear-in-the-side line made me laugh out loud in the lab.

    Comment by Zeynep — February 7, 2007 @ 10:32 am

  3. That toshiba startup screen is marketed at the same people that are worried that their IP address is being broadcast all over the internet. That in itself makes me sick.

    Comment by Guillaume — February 7, 2007 @ 10:57 am

  4. The fact that we (by which I mean IT-industry veterans of one kind or another) take that stuff totally in stride is totally the reason it keeps happening. Nobody would buy cars or real estate or food if they came wrapped up in plasic with hazmat stickers, flashing warning signs and commercials all over it.

    Comment by Mike Hoye — February 7, 2007 @ 11:42 am

  5. The total lack of regard for design niceties is always frustrating.

    I wonder if people even think about how things will be used sometimes. Or test them at all.

    Comment by Mike Bruce — February 7, 2007 @ 3:30 pm

  6. The reason shit like that Toshiba screen keeps happening is that 90% of the crap on that screen has generated revenue for Toshiba.

    Microsoft may be a bunch of evil monopolists, but back in the day when computer makers were suing Microsoft because of terms that wouldn’t let them install their own icons on the desktop and whatever else, well, I was on Microsoft’s side. Few people have worse taste than commodity hardware people.

    Comment by Mike Kozlowski — February 7, 2007 @ 7:57 pm

  7. No kidding. I’m convinced that none of the people who made design choices about HP’s website, for example, have ever actually used that website. (And, as has been noted before, the worst thing about HP’s site is that the prize for successfully navigating it is HP’s software.)

    Comment by Mike Hoye — February 8, 2007 @ 12:10 pm

  8. I don’t know what is up with manufacturers, but NO ONE ships media anymore. When I pay $1000+ for a laptop, you can give me the $0.15 in plastic that contains the preloaded software.

    Comment by Jamie Bowden — February 8, 2007 @ 1:05 pm

  9. What’s worse are the manufacturers who think that it’s OK to use up a chunk of your hard drive space for those tools, as though you weren’t going to notice it was missing.

    Comment by Mike Hoye — February 8, 2007 @ 1:25 pm

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