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Friday, December 7, 2007

Self-customizing computer interfaces

Developers do a lot of arcane stuff on a computer. Building, deploying, content mapping, code repository check-ins, viewing/approving code fixes, bug tracking...and so on. All of this requires a set of tools, sometimes chosen by an employer, sometimes a collection whacked together as an ad-hoc suite in order to get the code done.

The use of these tools is often blindingly don't need to look at that menu or dialog box to know that you should click here...or know the path to the particular group of files by don't read an entire file path, you grok it. Recognize it by sight. This is another kind of automaticity and is, probably, the same kind of thing that any craftsman does, whether it be building a house or machining a piece of metal.

Having learned to use a set of tools, with a habitual technique for performing various tasks, it is very irritating when the computer, or part of the software on it, decides in its wisdom, to reconfigure a menu, change a dialog box, change a familiar icon, or move all the shortcuts on the desktop.

Windows is dreadful for this. Unix didn't do anything remotely like this. It's clearly some kind of prank pulled on the unsuspecting public, in order to "help" someone who is a dope*. It is really bizarre, perhaps there are usability studies that say that this does help the hapless, I doubt it. Most people learn to use a windowing interface in a rather geographic way...the icon for a tool is a nice bright thing in the middle of the second column on the left hand side of the desktop for example. So when the computer is updated with some "security"** fixes, and the icon changes colour to a kind of wishy-washy wimpy thing and gets moved...well...steam emits from orifices, I'd say.

It's one thing to set up ones own machine and stop these things from happening, but when you go and use another machine, or have remote access to dozens of desktops, finding a way of achieving your objectives becomes a more interesting challenge.

This is like the negative billing of the software world; programs usually do this - without asking- and you have to find a way to turn it off. Eventually you give up, live with it and try to "f%ckin' stay awake" (to quote Billy Connolly).

However, when I suddenly got the error pop up above, and I found that Windows has rearranged the Right-mouse click menu on my machine so that the previous "Open with MyEclipse" is now just number 4 on the list (and double-click doesn't work the same as it did yesterday), I thought...why? Why do we do this? What possible reason could there be for the machine customizing my interface in any way? I've been doing it this way for months and it didn't interfere before. Did I do something stupid***? The arrogance of the people who decided to do this renders me, well, not speechless, more's the pity, but I'm left feeling that this is horribly wrong.

There's got to be a better about a nice conversation?

"BTW, Sue, I've noticed that you use this thingy more than you use these thingies in this menu. Or you're installing something to do with this thing. Can I make it easier for you by putting this on the top of the menu, or by reminding you of the keyboard shortcut you so obviously need to remember?"

"No, get lost."

"OK! CU later."

* - only a dope wouldn't be disturbed by this behaviour.
** - unlikely, but now everything's about security apparently. The new 's' word.
*** - well, that goes without saying.

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