User-friendly system? Tell us another one

February 11, 1994|By Patrick A. McGuire | Patrick A. McGuire,Sun Staff Writer

When Darya Miller left the Merchant Marine to have a baby and go back to college, her parents thought they were doing her a favor by presenting her with a brand new computer.

Even Darya thought so, until the second time she tried to use her Macintosh in her Dundalk home. "If everything is OK on a Mac, the screen shows you a smiling face," she says. "But this had a sour-apple face. I'd apparently turned it off without 'quitting' everything. How are you supposed to know not to do that? Now it had this frown face and I had to take it to the shop like that. I felt like a real idiot."

When she got it back, things only got worse.

"I had trouble doing everything," she says. "I couldn't move the margins on the MacWrite program, I couldn't figure out how to number the pages on my first research paper. That's when I started crying. I was so frustrated, I avoided eye contact with it, this big hulking monster down in the basement. The whole world is using computers; why couldn't I? I felt like a little kid in gym class not knowing how to play the game."

Hasn't it been the ironic joke played on all of us by the 20th century? Mind-boggling innovations in technology become available to the masses, and the masses make messes of them. Think of those people who paid big bucks when the automobile was brand new, then shed tears of futility when their shiny new roadster mysteriously cut out on some lonely back road. More recently, look to the proliferation of VCRs. Can you count three friends who actually know how to tape next Thursday's "Seinfeld"?

Computers may be the ultimate irony, because they have been held out as the user-friendly gizmo that would end all suffering and make our lives easier with the simple flick of a button. In the last six months of 1993, as the computer industry -- both hardware and software -- experienced sharp increases in sales, more and more people for the first time bought into the computer promise. And thus, more and more people have now learned the horrors of a bad config.sys file or how a simple computer can drive you autoexec.batty.

"I would just get so frustrated trying to get one simple report out of it," says Baltimore social worker Jenny Hope, one of several people who called Sundial after The Sun asked readers to share their computer woes with us. Ms. Hope says she originally figured the new computer at work would greatly simplify her life.

"But you spend hours and hours getting it to work, and it seemunfair it takes that much time. The computer was sitting in front of a window, and I just wanted to push it out. It seemed like the easiest solution."

"None of it is simple, and that's what's wrong," adds Lawrence C. McDaniel, a retired reporter and public relations consultant who bought a computer to hook up with the 20th century before it was too late. "I'm a reasonably intelligent man, but I haven't the faintest idea how to do this. Every time I go about reconfiguring something, I screw it up. No book puts it in simple, layman's terms we can understand. They all assume you know a lot more than you do."

If it's any consolation, the people in the computer industry say they understand. But even Bob Cohen, a vice president with the Information Technology Association of America, which represents software manufacturers, falls back on bytetalk when he cheerfully explains that a solution has been found.

"Graphic user interfaces," he says, sounding vaguely like one of those mechanics who tells you your problem is a "bad framistat bushing in the manifold head gasket."

"Graphic user interfaces are what make software easy to use for most users," he says when prompted to translate. "The software developer builds them in to do just that."

In that case, Mrs. E. C. Finch of Rock Hall sure could use some.

"I'm going absolutely buggy," says the retired fund-raiser. "I follow the so-called instructions, and they say do this and such and such will happen. Well, I do this and such and such doesn't happen." Simplifying things

She got a computer, she says, to transcribe an old manuscript written by her grandfather but has found it so difficult mastering "these flaming instruction books" that she advertised for a computer tutor.

"I'm not a cretin, for crying out loud, but they expect you to have a graduate engineering degree."

And that's wrong, says Marty Taucher, director of public relations for Microsoft, the software giant in Seattle that produces such popular programs as Windows, Excel and Microsoft Works.

"It's very, very important to us that computers are easy to use," he says. "There are still more people who don't use computers than who do, so we have a very strong incentive to continue refining products. The computer should do more of the work so that the consumer doesn't have to understand the nuances of all that gobbledygook."

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