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Err on the Side of the Beginner

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TechNews.com Tech Policy E-letter You are reading the weekly Fast Forward E-letter. Written by Washington Post personal technology columnist Rob Pegoraro, the e-mail version of this feature includes links to all the top personal tech stories from the previous week.
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Tuesday, June 1, 2004;

My pan of the Opera browser last week drew a lot of reaction in e-mail, almost all of it disapproval from fans of the browser (one helpfully ID'd himself in the subject header as a "Rabid Opera fan"). And almost all of these pans of my own review made the same point: The interface flaws that I criticized in this Web browser can be fixed by adjusting its settings.

I get that kind of response a lot when I take a program to task for an overly complex front end. So I want to take a little time to explain why I think that's exactly the wrong response.

It's wrong because most users -- and almost all inexperienced users -- never change the default settings in an application. Their homepage will be whatever site the browser's developers chose, their mail signature file will be whatever came with their mail program, and their "My Computer" icon will always be named "My Computer."

Therefore, the default settings in any application intended for home use should err on the side of the beginning user. More experienced people will know how to change those options, adding or removing features as they like.

I appreciate the fact that Opera allows so much customization, and that I can make its interface look as simple and clear as that of Mozilla Firefox or Safari. But I don't like the fact that I have to do this work to make the browser approachable.

If you'd like to read longer, better-argued versions of this argument, read Donald Norman's book The Design of Everyday Things, visit his Web site or stop by the Web page of another usability guru, Jakob Nielsen.

My Opera-loving readers were, however, correct in one critique of my column. I got it wrong when I said that you can't subscribe to an RSS newsfeed in Opera 7.5 by clicking on its link; in fact, you can, if the link has been properly formatted. Some readers were kind enough to point me to examples of RSS links that do work in that manner, unlike the ones I'd tried before.

A Plea For Better Error Messages

Here's another example of how poor interface design can lead a sufficiently oblivious user -- i.e., me -- to waste colossal amounts of time. It happened a few weeks ago, when I tried to use the fax software in Mac OS X Panther to send a one-page letter.

The fax did not go out on the first try, or the second, or the third: Each time, the fax software in Panther failed to even dial and gave up after maybe half a minute, offering a vague error message that seemed to suggest it couldn't talk to the modem in the computer.

Positive that this was the software's fault, I resorted to my usual troubleshooting method: searching through Apple and other discussion forums for advice while cursing vociferously. I ran cleanup utilities, deleted and recreated my settings and tried faxing to different numbers. I even rebooted the Mac to see if that would fix the problem, and only achieved a slight variation in error messages for my troubles.

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