iFear

To better focus our video-making efforts, I recently posted three questions on our email list:

  1. What is the biggest problem you have with your machine?
  2. What is the biggest problem you have with the Windows software that came with your machine?
  3. What is the biggest problem you have with the software on your iPad? (This applies mainly to the Memory Craft 15000, though the Skyline S9 also has iPad software.)

The replies were varied, particularly with machine problems. We’ll address those another time. Responses regarding the Windows software were also varied, but the majority came down to how to use the software, as well as fear of doing something wrong. This is not surprising, as most Windows programs have a lot of features with different menus and icons. Gone are the days of a thick printed manual accompanying software. These days you might get an electronic manual in the form of a PDF document, but usually it’s just a greatly abbreviated Help file. To make matters worse, most of the Windows software is written by engineers who don’t sew. These programs are built with attention paid to ease of writing, which does not always translate to ease of use. To make matters worse, nearly everyone has heard a horror story about someone who hit the wrong key at the wrong time and wiped out their entire computer. Most of these stories are more myth than fact, but nearly everyone has experienced a crash of some sort while using Windows. Microsoft has created a wealth of software tools for programmers to use, but there is no established set of standards for how those tools are used. Consequently even common tasks are done differently in different programs and there are usually many ways to do the same thing, not all of which are obvious. As Windows has evolved, it has added many more features, further increasing the complexity of using it. This won’t change, so most people will stop upgrading once they’ve mastered using a particular set of software. We will continue to make helpful videos with each new release, but we don’t expect to see much change in the ease of use of Windows software.

While Apple’s iPhone was the first touch-operated device, they actually were working on what became the iPad. Making the decision to change gears and release a phone first has proven to be a brilliant choice. The iOS operating system has, like Windows, evolved over the years, but unlike Windows, it’s more focused on ease of use. Steve Jobs characterized it as “the computer for the rest of us”, meaning those without technical skills and experience. Toward that goal, Apple has spent a lot of time and money on usability. Programmers have a very broad array of tools to use, but Apple also maintains a set of “human interface” guidelines to ensure that apps use those tools as they were intended. Every app must be approved before it goes into the App Store, and attention is paid to how easy an app is to use.

The result is that you can hand an iPad to a 2-year-old grandchild and within minutes they will be happily using it. Why, then, is it so hard for fully mature adults to use iPads? I think the primary reason is fear. The grandchild has no idea how much the device cost or what could go wrong. She just tries things without regard to what will happen, learning as she goes. Adults are afraid of “crashing” the iPad, or making a mistake that will cause all their work to disappear. Much of this fear stems from using desktop computers. Unlike a desktop, each app on an iPad is restricted to its own space. While it is still possible for a poorly written app to crash, it won’t take other apps, or the iPad itself, down with it. Well designed apps not only have built-in help, they often provide hints for what to do as they are used. By making the operating system stable and resilient, hard crashes are extremely rare, and even those can be recovered from quickly. Backup has been built into the devices, so it takes place automatically. It’s even possible to have the backups stored remotely, protecting the data from just about anything.

So what’s the lesson here? It’s simple, really. When approaching a touch-enabled device like the iPad, just release your inner child. Touch things to see what happens. Try things. Get to know the standard icons, like Search (search.jpg), Share (share.jpg), or Delete (delete.png). Well-written apps will use standard icons to clearly present common functions. While some apps will still be more complex than necessary (I’m looking at you AcuDesign!), most will separate features for simplicity. Don’t let your fear of technology stop you from learning how to use the tools it provides. If you find yourself using the often-repeated phrase “I don’t do computers!” you are really hiding. In these times we have to keep learning, just to get through day to day activities. It’s worth the time and effort to learn the tools, and you will probably enjoy the process. And, yes, we will continue to make videos to ease your journey!