Hello! I'm Tom. I designed a game called Gunpoint, about rewiring things and punching people, and now I'm working on a new one called Heat Signature, about sneaking aboard randomly generated spaceships. Here's some more info on all the games I've worked on, here's the podcast I do, here are the videos I make on YouTube, here are some of the articles I wrote for PC Gamer, and here are two short stories I wrote for the Machine of Death collections.
Preface: I need to get this one out of my Drafts folder before I resume the positivity. I wrote it a while ago, at my parents’ place, in such a fury that I barely remember typing a word of it. To break up its somewhat critical tone, I have inserted some of my Eve Online screenshots. Here goes:
My Gran knows a lot about wood-working. She likes wood, she likes working with wood, and she likes things made of wood. My friend Steve knows a lot about bikes. He likes riding bikes, he likes tinkering with them, and he even seems to like trying to explain to an idiot like me which one I should buy.
I know a lot about computers. I hate computers.
I’m part of one of the first generations to grow up with them – we’ve had at least one in the house as far back as I have memories, and I’ve had my own from secondary school onwards. So I’ve sort of hacked away at the most maddening idiocies that would normally get in the way of the things I use them for, but I still don’t think a forty-eight hour period has gone by without one of them making me swear, and I’m extremely difficult to anger.
The problem is that they don’t occur naturally, they have to be built. And they have to be built by people who are very intelligent in precisely the way that typically only people who are hopeless at understanding people are. Then they have to be used by people.
It’s incredible that there’s even such a topic as ‘usability’, laughable that it’s a relatively new one, and embarrassing that we haven’t actually done anything in it yet. Things like iPods are still seen as examples of it, which makes this era a lot like the one when fire was considered technology.
Linked computers are the single most important non-medical advancement mankind has made since the wheel, which I’m increasingly of the opinion was a mistake (except perhaps for bikes, which have broadly seen a net benefit), and we haven’t got round to figuring out how to make them usable yet? Usable. As in, so peope can use them. What have we been doing?
\i tend to notice what’s most heinousy wrong with computers when \i have to use someone ese’s to show them how to do something. \the pacement, for exampe, of the forwards sash key on a \toshiba \sateite \pro\; precisey where the shift key is on every other computer in the word. \or the fact that the ” key barey works on this particuar machine.
I was trying to make BBC website’s radio work on my mum’s, this, laptop. I fixed the first problem in three seconds – the volume was set to zero – but it’s four hours later now and I still haven’t actually managed the broader task.
And it’s worth saying that no-one ever tells you those concentric ellipses next to the clock represent a speaker rather than the Death Star (which they much more closely resemble) and that they summon no, not the speaker volume (that would almost make sense (spit!)) but the Windows volume, which is a range of meta-volume sliders that govern and multiply with all other volume settings, of which there can be up to five nested levels at any given time, sometimes in geometric and other times exponential proportion, and that they produce two different interfaces for these meta-volume sliders depending on whether they were single- or double-clicked, meaning that attempting to activate the double (which appears in a conventional window format) frequently creates an instance of the mini-interface triggered by the single (which manifests itself in a narrow, windowless overlay that steals focus but is not recognised by the operating system or Start Bar as an application, and presents the user with no obvious way of dismissing it, and which frequently encounters an unhandled exception that means it can’t be dismissed), sometimes followed by a second instance, sometimes moving to follow the cursor as it clicks again, sometimes actually blocking the second click, and jumping the volume to zero in doing so – quite often (and in this case) the very misconfiguration you are attempting to reverse.
When I said that was worth saying, of course, I had imagined I would be able to do so in fewer than a thousand words and four-hundred overlapping nested clauses.
Clicking the Listen Now link from the homepage of a BBC programme launches a new window which immediately notes that you do not have the RealPlayer plugin installed, which I took to be a compliment – the Windows equivalent of saying “Oh, you’ve lost weight!” or “So you finally realised puffer jackets weren’t even cool seventeen years ago?”
Mostly, I admit, out of disbelief. RealPlayer went out of fashion on websites to the extent that fascism did in Germany, some time before puffer jackets outlived their fad. Five years before their invention.
But this was not my own computer, and I thought there would be no harm in installing a small plugin which I happen to hate. I committed the very fallacy that is responsible for the ridiculous state of all computer software today – I thought something would be ‘good enough for normal people’.
If I were King God of Earthtopia, supporting RealPlayer would be a criminal offense. The punishment for requiring it would be watching your children die. So discovering that my technical savvy wasn’t actually up to the task of installing it, I couldn’t entirely suppress a noise that cause my mum to immediately ask what was wrong.
“There’s a picture of the download link.”
A picture. The BBC whisk you to their Help page, which is really a FAQ, rather than pointing you to the plugin, and then when you finally find the question that relates to the problem they already know you’re having, it has no link to the piece of software you need. Instead, it offers you an installation guide, the first step of which is to install the software. To illustrate how you do this, they show you a picture of the download button that you will find four pages later, just after step – and please excuse the large font you have by now already seen coming – FOURTEEN.
The picture is not a link. It is a picture of a link. It is a picture of a link you must click to complete step one, but which you cannot click until you have skipped steps 1-13, at which point it takes you away from the guide entirely. Nevermind why, how, in all conscience, there can be a FOURTEEN step process to install what PC World Magazine rated number two in their worst 25 technology products in the history of human civilization, in order to listen to the fucking RADIO; something people have been doing since before the FIRST WORLD WAR.
No! Actually, do mind that. Mind exactly that. Mind it furiously, because putting up with this shit is exactly the reason we have to put up with this shit.
Here’s the reason this matters: if you’re responsible for a feature of a site which, over your site’s lifetime, causes five million visitors five minutes of frustration, you are responsible for a lifetime of pain. That’s not a figure of speech, I actually worked it out – that’s seventy years of torment. If I were in charge of a team making a website, I’d have the designers watch the user tests with their hands splayed out on a table, and every time someone so much as frowned, I’d smash one of their fingers with a claw hammer six times. There’s no maths behind that figure, that one just feels right.
I didn’t read it, I skipped to the download link for the thing I didn’t want, it downloaded, I ran it over Internet Explorer 7’s apoplectic objection to me running a file I deliberately downloaded (to be fair, on this occasion it had a point), and it ran the RealPlayer downloader. This is an application consisting of a single blank horizontal progress bar that never progresses, a pause button that doesn’t do anything, and a mysterious ‘down’ button that depresses slightly when clicked. By flatly and categorically not working even a little bit, without explanation, it proves itself far superior to the program it’s trying to download. A Real program that doesn’t do anything is a relief on the scale of a cancer that doesn’t do anything – the word is not ‘malfunctioning’, it’s ‘benign’.
It’s not good enough for ordinary people, because ordinary people is everyone. Developers assume, when so few people seem able to intuitively understand their products, that people are stupid. In response, they hide the advanced features in future versions, insert big, colourful images, constant pop-up windows that try to explain what’s happening, and extensive help files. And of course, even fewer people understand this newer version, because hiding complexity adds a whole new layer of complexity.
Since DOS, computers have been getting harder to use. If you use XP, the easiest way to work with it is to also install Google Desktop, and use its quicksearch function to just type in the name of the thing you want to open or run, and press enter. Even if you’re an ordinary person. My gran can type ‘calculator’ more quickly than she could locate and click on it in the Start Menu. I can type Firefox faster than I can click on its quicklaunch icon.
Writing the name of the thing you want is dramatically quicker, more logical and easier to do than stroking the narrow slats of a clickless location-sensitive nested lateral hierarchy of hundreds of wildly diverse items that are categorised not by function, not by type, not even by name, but alphabetically by the name of the company that published them – not even the one that made them.
A search box is the low-water mark against which all interfaces should be judged, because it’s a complete lack of interface. And yet so far, we’ve yet to come up with anything more efficient or self-explanatory. It’s actually quicker for me to find something on the internet by typing it into the Firefox address bar (which Googles it) than it is to get back to it again via my bookmarks.
Windows Vista makes an almost sane gesture by adding a search box, but again it’s a step back: slower, harder to get to, harder to select a result from and limited to certain folders. Right now the only people even breaking even on an interface front are Google, who don’t even make operating systems, just by adding in the crudest and most basic possible interface concept into the OS they know we all have to put up with. It’s only by comparison to the excruciating insanity of modern interface design that it seems like an actual achievement, and it’s virtually the only thing we’ve got that just about qualifies as usable. Everything else is a fucking disgrace.
The_B: Erm... Mr...errr...Framcis...sir, err... that's an...errr...backslash, not a forward one...
*Winces, braces for impact*
The_B: Dangnabbit, that also should be Francis, not Framcis...
Jason L: The aforementioned RealAlternative...?
Matthew: Here's a simple one, Tom. Why is there a Caps Lock key? How often do you ever use it, and if you didn't have one would you miss it at all? Yet here it is next to the letter A, which is the third commonest letter in the alphabet, meaning you unintentionally type something in capitals at least once a day. Still, at least Windows doesn't do that infuriating thing of setting NumLock on when you boot up any more. People who actually use NumLock must be even rarer than people who use Caps Lock.
Russell: I thought the BBC media players offered a choice between Real and WMP, so I took it upon myself to investigate; at which point the BBC Radio Player proclaimed 'We are experiencing severe technical problems, and regret that many programmes are unavailable. We are working to restore normal service. See station websites for alternative links.'
Not a good start and I've lost interest already, rubbish.
Russell: Did remember though that the BBC iPlayer is starting public beta this week, this may have media formats more relevant to the post-Windows for Workgroups era: 'Our new on-demand service, BBC iPlayer, launches on Friday in open beta testing. More than 400 hours of TV programmes each week from across our channels will be available for download and viewing in high quality on your PC for up to 30 days after transmission.'
Jason L: Hi, Matthew! Those of us who like to type numbers quickly into our number processing machines disagree.
Tom Francis: Jason - I can never get RealAlternative or QuickTime Alternative to work for in-browser media. They work fine for Media Player Classic, but any streaming stuff fails.
Matthew - I had exactly the same thought. Nevermind that it's next to A, it's also next to Shift, which is far enough from the resting position of your hands that your muscle memory of its position is vague. On an old keyboard I physically prised the key out. On Microsoft multimedia keyboards, though, you can disable the key in the software, which I did for a long time. These days, though, my job entails a lot of typing in serial numbers, the letters of which are all in capitals and the numbers of which require you not to be holding down shift.
I don't use the NumLock key either, but maybe for the opposite reason you don't - I always want those keys to work as numbers. In fact, I had to look at the keyboard just then to find out what their other function is. The real mystery is why we have to hold shift to get access to those useful punctuation marks above the letter keys.
Russell - the BBC site usually offers a Media Player option, but if you click it on anything I tried, it says Media Player format is unavailable for this programme. In the FAQ somewhere it says they're "still working on" not requiring RealPlayer, the worst program in the world.
Johnny: You've hit the nail in the face there.
My personal bug bear at this time is those Windows XP automatic updates. They download and you get a pop up asking if you want to install it now or later. I tend to think I'm too busy right now so I'll do it later and crack on with my work. Five minutes later it pops up and asks if I want to install the updates again - and so begins a vicious circle of five minute bouts of furious working being constantly interrupted throughout the day every five minutes by this little fuck which induces a further five minutes of furious swearing and violent clicking on the 'Later' button.
You wouldn't drop in on a friend, only to find he's busy because his wife is threatening divorce, and say "Sorry, you must be busy. I'll see you later." Then ring the bell again five minutes later.
I've just left PC for MAC. Which I know has the potential to cause great conflicts. But seriously, my quality of life has improved drastically. http://www.thebestpa... ...=macs_cant
bob_Arctor: Why do people say MAC. It's not an acronym! It stands for Macintosh!
I'm sorry I still can't get over the lack of RMB. I know you /can/ get mice with more than one button, but the Mac falls over there.
Plus the ones at medical school, while not the new OS, always crash. So much for more stability.
But if you are discussing user interfaces the fact I have a thumb on the left side over a button, two fingers hovering over buttons on top, and then a nice scroll wheel readily accessible (shame the MMB is shit on the MS intellimouse) apparently counts for nothing for Apple.
SCROLL! Third mouse button for open in new tab or close tab!
Johnny: Bob - I just can't help myself. I know its not an acronym but it just feels right. It's like porn. At first it feels good but on reflection its dirty, nasty and wrong.
No RMB is crap. However, my Macintosh came with a 'Mighty Mouse'. A five button mouse with scroll wheel. It is shit. It's buttons are not distinct and are all very sensitive so things fly everywhere. Infact it was so annoying that as an emergency measure I had to restrict it to purley left click! I have since brought a Logitech.
That said, I still would never go back to PC. My Macintosh still crashes form time to time and I still curse its name as the box of hate but there is something in the interface that gives you a sense that they've attempted to make this for a human being to use.
Tom Francis: Yeah, and the irony is that its obnoxious insistence on installing the update NOW NOW NOW eventually leads you to disable automatic updates completely, leaving you annoyed and out of date. PC users may be able to shut the fuck up - myself excluded, obviously - but PCs themselves haven't quite learnt the art.
Now Vista brings us the Black Screen of Death: every security alert is so world-endingly intrusive that you're forced to disable them entirely just to get anything done, which means you miss the important ones. It's mind-boggling that the concept of not interrupting the user in the middle of what they're doing remains beyond these people's grasp.
There was an interesting blog post from one of the Firefox guys about ways they could notify the user without being needlessly intrusive, involving speech-bubble type notifications that balloon out from the piece of interface furniture that they relate to. I'll link it if I can find it again. It almost seemed like they weren't idiots.
Tom Francis: PS. Bob, yours was my thousandth comment! Happy thousandversary, people with things to say! May a thousand more things be said, on subjects.
Alex Holland: I've been using a Mac for a few years now; for me, it's a lovely fusion of Windows and Linux with an excellent UI on top. The one-button mouse jibes are no longer relevant - all Macs now ship with multi-button mice (although they are crap, as mentioned above). Personally, I've never used my Mac with a single button mouse.
In terms of the stability debate, in my experience Windows, Linux and OS X are all very stable unless you try to play games on them, at which point they go tits up repeatedly.
Returning to the point in hand, Realplayer on the Mac is a charming, well behaved application with no Adware or soul erosion. On the other hand, Windows Media Player streaming doesn't work at all, even with the now discontinued official client. This may explain the Beeb's reluctance to abandon Real as a platform, although the iPlayer was going to be Windows only until a public petition caused them to change their minds.
Tom Francis: Russ: have now tried the BBC's iPlayer. I had all the problems this guy has:
With one extra: I can't play anything once it's downloaded. It says it needs a security update, offers a 'do it now' button, which does nothing. Could probably be bypassed by installing IE 7 and WMP 11, but nothing's worth that.
Jogger: Indeed, Pentadact, nothing is worth IE 7. In fact after MSFT admonished me to upgrade to IE 7 I uninstalled 6 and 7 failed, so on the phone to MSFT (actually found a contact tel number),
where I learn the phone line is only for virus cures (told them I had viruses too but that did not convince them), so they sent me to another "help" line that charged $70 per event, then to young man in India with the mother tongue so accented that it sounded like a parody of an accent, enhanced by phone reception fading in and out like short wave static. After shouting letter words back and forth ("N as in November!") and
getting nowhere I allowed him to "take over" my computer. He
fussed with it a full 30 minutes and finally decided IE 7 is
not compatible with your system; I will reinstall IE 6. Now
the charge has doubled to $140. We are back where we started.
J-Man: This is all so, so true.
Jason L: That random paragraph bubbler is such a wonderful little feature; was the idea original to you?
My gut somehow suggests you're a Stephenson antifan, Tom, but on this occasion I choose to go with hope over hunch. Rereading the bit on Google Toolbar prompts me to post In the Beginning Was the Command Line in case it's somehow gone unseen by you or a reader who would like it. It's Stephenson; there is no single subject, just thoughts that move. In quantity.
Tom Francis: Not entirely: it's really just a random-post widget like many blogs have, the only tweak I hadn't seen elsewhere was to display only the excerpt and not the title. And my excerpts are out-of-context snippets rather than first-para intros.
Feel like I've placed that box badly in this design, I never notice it any more and it's causing me to fall behind in selecting excerpts. I used to click it a lot.
J-Man: I disagree Tom, after reading the latests post I usually click on it once or twice. To my pleasant surprise I found some posts I haven't read before.
Tom Francis: Shuffled it up one place anyway, glad to hear it's doing its job.
Jazmeister: I only really look at the pictures, myself. For serious though, that "recent links" one is my favourite because it turned me into a Googleslave.