Designing Good Internet Experiences

The Internet will remain out of the reach of many consumers until computers are as easy to use as lamps.

By Erik J. Heels

First published 1/2/1998; Law Practice Management magazine, “nothing.but.net” column; American Bar Association

The thing I like about lamps is that you simply plug them in and they work. You don’t have to configure your circuit breakers, you don’t need to login to the local electric circuit. Just plug it in, and it works.

That’s why everybody you know has a lamp. Lamps are easy to use. Computers, on the other hand, are not. Not by a long shot. Unfortunately, the Internet will remain out of the reach of many consumers until computers are as easy to use as lamps.

Try to recall the last time you saw somebody use a computer for the first time. If you have never experienced this, simply hang out at the computer department at Sears for an hour or so and you’ll see what I mean. None of it is intuitive – from the oddly named keys on the keyboard to the pointing/clicking devices.

I am in the business of selling Internet services to business users, many of whom have never used the Internet before. So I am aware of the need to translate the mumbo-jumbo of Internet access (frame relay, ISDN, T1, and the like) into language that novices can understand. The Internet experience starts at the desktop, so I must also consider the potential Internet client who has never used a computer before. Every time I experience the Internet, from turning my computer on in the morning to shutting it off at night, I try to think about how a first-time user would react to the same events.

For example, at work, I use a Dell laptop with a docking station. I use an external monitor, keyboard, and floppy disk drive. In the morning, I turn the computer on and then head to the kitchen to start a pot of coffee. When I return to my desk, the computer is usually ready to go. The other day, however, I returned to see the error message “non-system disk, remove and strike any key to continue.” I had apparently left a floppy disk in the floppy drive the night before. Why, I thought, did the engineers who designed this computer decide that the default mode of operation should be this one? Strike one.

I removed the floppy disk and struck the largest key on the right side of the keyboard. Just then, a heard a long beep from the kitchen. (Our user-friendly coffee machine beeps when the coffee is ready.) I headed to the kitchen for my cup o’ java. When I returned to my desk, I was surprised to see that the computer had still not booted. It was still waiting for me to “strike any key.” As it turns out, the largest key on the right side of the keyboard is the shift key, which does not activate the booting process. I guess they meant any key except that one. Strike two.

The computer finally booted up, and Windows95 started. Then the floppy disk started whirring and chirping – loudly. The computer was obviously looking for the floppy disk that used to be there, and it seemed to be asking me “Where did my little floppy disk go? Why did you take it out?” Because you made me take it out! Strike three.

I had been at work fewer than fifteen minutes, and already I’d had three negative computer experiences. But for my cup of coffee, I would have been in a really bad mood!

Now add networking to the equation. At my office, you have to login to the LAN (actually you have to login to an NT and a Novell server) before you can use network resources such as printers. But why do I have to login to the LAN? One day last week, all I wanted to do was print a letter. Not a complicated task. I don’t have to “login” to the telephone to make a phone call, I don’t have to login to the fax machine to send a fax, and I don’t have to login to the electric grid to turn on my lamp! Yet I have to login to the LAN to print.

Why is the printer on the LAN in the first place? One of the major reasons that computer networks were first invented was to share very expensive peripherals such as printers. But you can buy a good laser printer these days for less than $1000. It would seem to make more sense to simply buy a small laser printer for every desktop rather than spend thousands of dollars and hours setting up network printers in the name of efficiency. There are five printers on our LAN, and only of them is near my desk. The others are two floors down. Guess which one I use. It’s the same one the folks two floors down don’t use.

I was told that I have to login to the LAN for security reasons. I don’t get it. I have a laptop computer, I keep all of my files on my computer, and then I take it home at night. Why, I asked again, do I have to login to the LAN? Because somebody could login and send e-mail as you, I was told. In fact, anybody can send e-mail as anybody else, with or without a username and password. And to read my e-mail, you’d need to know my POP3 e-mail username and password, which I do keep secret. My username and password for the LAN are both “heels.” So if you broke into my office, sat down at an idle computer (assuming you could find one – most are laptops), you could now login to the LAN as me and what – print documents? I think if people are breaking into our office, we’d have bigger problems than a “security” issue that allowed them to do with a compromised username and password what they should be able to do without access control – print documents.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. We do not have to accept a system that forces us to enter a username and password in order to print a document. Where do you want to go today? No, what do you want to do today? On the day that I wanted to print, here’s what I did. I used my Macintosh PowerBook computer.

No, I am not a Macintosh zealot. No, I am not a Windows-phobe. I have used (and written programs for) half a dozen different operating systems, including Unix, MacOS, and Windows. I just recognize common-sense good design when I see it.

It took several months for all of our new Dell laptops to arrive, so for a while, the PowerBook was the only computer on my desk. And I haven’t had the time to move my Macintosh files over to the Dell, which I fully intended to do. In order to print a document with my PowerBook, I turned on the PowerBook, selected the appropriate printer, and printed the document. And it just worked. I didn’t have to login to the LAN (whatever that means).

And when my Dell arrived, I assumed that it would work just like my Macintosh. Since I had no immediate need to access the Novell or NT servers, I didn’t get (or even know to ask for) usernames and passwords for the Novell and NT servers. When prompted for network logon information, I simply hit “cancel,” assuming that printers would still be available. But they were not. Without two usernames and two passwords, Windows users cannot print in our office. Macintosh users can.

And don’t even get me started on the various “privilege” levels that are needed to cancel print jobs. I don’t need “privileges” to remove a jammed fax from the fax machine or to hang up after I dial a wrong number!

And what’s the deal with printer drivers?

I have decided to keep my Macintosh PowerBook. In fact, I’m buying a new one. Why? Because it just works. And there are Internet products and services out there that just work the way you want them to, because their designers have put some thought into the user – and particularly the new user – experience.

The Whistle InterJet is one such product. It is an all-in-one modem/router/Web server/mail server solution that allows an entire small office – quickly and easily – to access the Internet. Plug one end of the InterJet into your LAN, plug the other end into your Internet service provider, and it just works. It should come as no surprise that the product designers are all alumni of Apple Computer.

There are other examples of good design – hardware, software, and services – that immediately jump to mind. Hewlett Packard printers, Claris FileMaker Pro database software, and Web sites like Yahoo and FindLaw.

Know of any Internet-related products or services that epitomize good design? Drop me a line and let me know. We must spread the word about good design so that it catches on. Then maybe, just maybe, we’ll have an Internet that is easy to use, and stories about it that are easy to print!

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