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New Doesn't Always Mean Improved

June 12, 2018

Awhile back, Dan Kaminsky posed these questions on Twitter:
  • Who asked Slack to shut down their IRC gateway?
  • Who asked Apple to remove the headphone port?
  • Who *are* technical organizations actually listening to? Not asking as an attack. It’s behavior that is happening, with full awareness of unpopularity. What is the source?
I love this sentiment. In fact, I ask these sorts of questions all the time. For instance, who decided that we no longer wanted mechanical keyboards? Why do laptops have trackpads when everyone was cool with the TrackPoint?

It’s a little bit like an automatic transmission versus a stick shift. If you know how to drive a stick, you don’t want an automatic transmission. If you don’t drive a stick shift, you’re not going to buy a car that’s got one.

One of the advantages of a TrackPoint is that your hands don’t have to leave the home row to move the cursor. So, you can type and move the cursor without doing this [mimes a hand shifting between a keyboard and a trackpad].

Plus, your finger doesn’t really have to move, because a TrackPoint is strain-gauged, so it measures pressure. It doesn’t move around like a joystick, it’s measuring pressure. Some people get it and some people don’t; some people acquire the taste. It’s hard to explain, but I still think there’s a use for it.

For the record, mechanical keyboards are still available, though when I started in IT, they were ubiquitous. But again, how do these decisions get made? I assume the desire to cut costs is a foremost consideration in these instances. Maybe there were licensing issues with IBM. Regardless of the reasoning or circumstances though, it sometimes feels like we're heading backwards and forgetting valuable lessons from the past.

This article from 2007 questions the common perception of user-friendliness:

Graphic User Interface (GUI) is commonly considered to be superior to Text-based User Interface (TUI). This study compares GUI and TUI in an electronic dental record system. Several usability analysis techniques compared the relative effectiveness of a GUI and a TUI. Expert users and novice users were evaluated in time required and steps needed to complete the task. A within-subject design was used to evaluate if the experience with either interface will affect task performance. The results show that the GUI interface was not better than the TUI for expert users. GUI interface was better for novice users. For novice users there was a learning transfer effect from TUI to GUI. This means a user interface is user-friendly or not depending on the mapping between the user interface and tasks. GUI by itself may or may not be better than TUI.

I think you know how this ends up: The only folks using text-based interfaces, CLI and the like, are us, the so-called expert users. For all the non-technical end users in the enterprise, GUI predominates.

I don't have the answers, but it sure seems like there's disconnect between those who design and enhance our technology and the consumer base. Maybe it's a result of corporate cost-cutting, or maybe it's so marketing teams can point to new features.
Or maybe it's generational. The things we take for granted, younger people have no idea how they work. For instance, Slack went down a couple weeks ago. I had to laugh, knowing that irc keeps on running. Then I found this about a hotel that provides an instructional video on using its rotary phones. (Note: You have to be at least 35 to find that sentence astounding.)
Anyway, I'm sure you can come up with your own examples of changes that didn't seem helpful or necessary. For all we gain with new technologies, it's not a perfect trade-off. New doesn't always mean improved.

Posted June 12, 2018| Permalink

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