Why old people use portals

Yes, the title of this entry makes an unfairly general assumption.

I’m not an expert on user interfaces but I was just thinking about this and wanted to write it down. I think that people who didn’t grow up with computers were used to being able to see and access the controls for every discrete function of a device at once—nothing hidden behind menus, multi-function buttons, etc. A lamp had a switch that lets you turn it on or off. A car had a steering wheel, a shifter, and a couple of pedals. An oven had a dial to set the temperature. A TV had a dial for the channels, a dial for the volume, and a power switch. A typewriter had a button for each letter. Of course as more functions were added to devices, having a dedicated button for each function became less practical. I always thought it would be funny to see a keyboard for a logographic language with a dedicated key for each word. The keyboard would fill a room and typing would involve a lot of sliding back and forth on a wheeled chair.

The confusion began when interface elements (such as a button) got more than a single function. The old joke used to be that nobody could program a VCR, or even set the clock on it. This is probably because the VCR mainly had buttons primarily dedicated to functions like “PLAY” and “STOP,” and were labeled as such. However, the less common functions, like setting the time, often required complicated actions like holding two buttons as once, and neither of them were labeled “SET TIME TO 8:35 PM.”

As these buttons gained more functions, they received less descriptive labels. “FAST FORWARD” became “FF,” and later letters were removed altogether as “PLAY” turned into “►.” For those of us who grew up with these universal symbols, it’s pretty obvious what each button does, and it’s nice that the symbols are consistent across devices. To the less technically versed, it can be like learning hieroglyphics.

Over time, the interface elements became even more generic. Again focusing on home audio/video equipment, remotes started to receive a joystick-like component (up, down, left, right, and enter). Some were replaced with a single touchscreen, with perhaps a couple of hard buttons for volume. And, as the manufacturers received complaints from users (or the people who were in charge of selling to and/or teaching the users), a few more hard buttons were added that could be programmed with various other single functions or macros.

But while video equipment may have always had some confusion associated with it, even traditionally familiar devices were no longer immune to these changes. Digital clocks became cheap, and were slapped on almost any electronic device imaginable from to bump up the feature list. Just think of how many places you can check the time in your kitchen. Many of these clocks read 12:00 for their entire operating lifetimes.*

Cars were affected as well. First, changes were limited secondary functions like the radio, which saw its traditional hard buttons replaced with confusing interfaces like BMW’s iDrive wheel. It made some sense to people used to computers (navigate, select/execute), but it is the perfect example of how simplifying an interface is not just a matter of removing as many interface elements as possible. Now, even functions like changing from “DRIVE” to “PARK” in a BMW with automatic transmission is accomplished with the push of a button, instead of the familiar and perhaps more satisfying “clunk” of a traditional shifter.

Which brings me to portals. A site that is a portal (and I’m not even talking about the modern versions, which are more like customized dashboards), can be easier for someone unfamiliar with its functions to understand. Everything is right there, whether you asked for or are interested in it or not. The same portal which may be appealing to the less-savvy user may appear cluttered and busy to the user who knows that they can have an interface where they just get exactly what they want, when they want it. To use an offline example, a beginner computer user simplifies things by putting a shortcut/alias to every single application (or document or website) on the desktop. A power user uses an application launcher. Something else that I’ve noticed while blogging recently: I use fewer links now. Before, I would link to something if I thought some of my readers might not know what it is. Now, I assume they know to highlight it and search.

And that typewriter that had a button for each letter? Well, how many of you remember explaining how to type names of people in pre-smartphone cell phones with three letters per key? Think that was tough? Soon, you’ll only have one button to choose from.

* The cool thing about that sentence is it makes sense for either tense of the word “read.”

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