Part of the failure of the computer industry over the years has been its inability to focus on genuine productivity. Now we might be inclined to think that the industry sells itself on the basis of productivity because of the multitude of adverts for various technology products that harp on about the remarkable business benefits awaiting the happy purchaser.
And, to be fair, it is certainly the case that some products pay for themselves very quickly and deliver excellent benefits.
However, there is another dynamic that often comes into play, which is the “wow” factor. If the technology is innovative enough and marketed well enough, then everyone forgets that it is supposed to deliver genuine productivity benefits. And if it doesn’t then most people ignore this fact, including the happy manufacturer of the “wow”.
Let us consider the mouse. This was an invention of Xerox Parc as a crucial part of its revolutionary Windows, Icons, Menus and Pointing device interface system.
This interface and the mouse was popularised first by Apple and then taken up by the whole PC industry with great enthusiasm, so much so that eventually it produced many species of mouse.
One, two and three button, mouse with wheel, radio mouse, ergonomic mouse and all the rodent variants that the human mind was capable of dreaming up. There was a plague of mice followed, or accompanied, by mouse substitutes; tracker balls, touchpads and IBM’s famous “nipple”.
But nobody pointed out the immediate and obvious problem that a mouse poses. The PC had an input device, the keyboard, which required the use of both hands, and then suddenly a new input device was added to the machine which required a further hand. So from about 1990 onwards we were stuck with a configuration that requires the user to have three hands.
Now let us first consider the positive side of the mouse. There are applications that simply cannot work well, or perhaps at all, without a mouse. These applications are primarily those where the user is working on something in two-dimensional space (or even three-dimensional space).
So we are talking computer aided design, desktop publishing, painting, drawing and even using browsers. For these applications a mouse is a necessity.
It may be possible but it is certainly not productive to do without our furry friend and his ubiquitous little mat.
However, as soon as the mouse appeared all software was rewritten to accommodate the new “wow” factor, so that the next release of the word processor, spreadsheet, database program or whatever, included the mouse in its operation. None of this made any sense at all in terms of productivity.
In reality it slowed users down because of their inconsiderate inability to grow another hand. The user was thus obliged to change context whenever he or she decided that it was time to get “mousy”.
And in most instances the mouse was doing nothing that couldn’t be achieved faster from the keyboard. And even where it was (scroll bars for example) a purpose-designed button could have been added to the keyboard for that purpose, but it wasn’t.
Only a few studies were done of mouse usage for such applications and they reached the obvious conclusion that the mouse was “productivity negative”.
But nobody cared and such studies were not given much attention. Who cares about productivity when you have “wow”?
It is interesting to note here that other commonly used devices, such as cars and sewing machines, came up against the same problem many years ago and solved it by using the foot. In both cases the operation of the device was too complex for two hands alone.
However, in both cases the imperative was greater: you were likely to injure yourself if the control of the device was inadequate. Not so with the PC. All that happens is you get slower.
So what the mouse gave with one hand, it took away with the other. The upshot was further confusion in the way that people used the PC, because the mouse often provided an alternative way of doing the same thing.
In reality this meant more for the user to learn in order run an application. Consider just a simple Yes/No dialogue box presented by a Windows application. You can mouse to it and click either “yes” or “no” or you can hit return if the choice you desire is highlighted or, use the arrow keys and then hit return. Why two choices? Only because of “wow”. The mouse is superfluous on this.
And none of this interface confusion needed to have happened. But it did, because the developers responsible for designing the interface simply did not care or, possibly, they knew nothing about designing interfaces.
- Robin Bloor is the founder of analysts Bloor Research
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