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The cranky user: Mixed signals on the high-tech highway
By Peter Seebach - 2004-04-28 Page:  1 2 3

What to do when red means yes and no means go

Mixed signals have become a fixture on the user landscape that most of you just ignore. Whether you're pressing Start to shut down a computer operating system or marveling at privacy-policy doublespeak, you've become so inured that you barely notice how exhausting and irritating it all is. Not so for the cranky user. This month's column reveals both the madness and the method behind the seemingly random insanity that most computer users are soaking in.

Sometimes you don't know whether to laugh or cry. I've spent countless hours poring over technical documentation whose sole purpose, it would seem, is to inform me that the next step is counterintuitive. I could dedicate years of my life to navigating the intricacies of online privacy policies that are designed to derail me. I've learned to press Start when I mean stop, Talk when the conversation's over, and opt out, opt out, opt out, when I know it is unlikely to make a difference.

It's like some grand April fools joke that's gone on a decade too long. You expect certain vendors to jump up and cry "Surprise!" just when you've finally learned how to use their product despite all its quirks. And the question is, as always, Why not just fix it?

In this month's Cranky User, I'll look at three prime culprits of the mixed signal: doublethink, non-comprehension, and terminology drift.

Press start to stop

Anyone who has ever used the Windows operating system (and who hasn't, at least once?) is aware of one of the most obvious examples of mixed signals, ever. The Windows Start menu is a clear imitation of the Macintosh apple menu, which, prior to OS X, served as the launch pad for commonly used applications and system references. Unfortunately, the decision to refer to this feature on Windows as the Start menu has resulted in instructions that, nine years later, must often be repeated: You want to shut down the machine? You'll have to launch the Start menu.

It's not just computers, of course. For many years I used a cordless phone with a button labeled Talk that you pressed to hang up. One of my friends still teases me about that phone, years later. But, to be fair, it was a stupid design. It did exactly the opposite of what you meant it to do. (Even if this was often what you wanted ...)

For a more subtle option, consider those beautiful, artistic glass doors where the handle is totally ambiguous as to whether you push or pull, or which side of the door will open when you finally do one or the other. The same principle is at work: The intended use of the object is the opposite of its visual signals.

In these examples, the signals are mixed but not impossible to understand. After all, even if my car exhorts me to "BRAKE" when it really wants me to stop using the parking brake, at least I've got a flashing red light to warn me that something is wrong.

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First published by IBM developerWorks

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