Sunday, March 30, 2003

A stab at the topic of idiot-proofing

When I was a child, my mother used to refer to the best, most trustworthy, robust appliances as "idiot-proof." This meant that using them was simple and straightforward, and that someone with no mechanical aptitude whatsoever could employ them as intended. "Idiot-proof," in this context, is not an insult--to the appliance or the user.

I started to think about idiot-proofing as I pondered Bob Frankston's request for access to source information, (see my "PC Forum, Day 1" post). The dilemma is, when does idiot-proofing constitute help or support for the user, and when does it constitute obfuscation? For instance, I am a person who doesn't like to read directions. Yet, I often choose to try things that are new and difficult, where I have limited background knowledge. I end up learning more than I had intended, mainly by trial but mostly by error. Ultimately I am better off because by the time I've made a big mess and cleaned it up, I've had to learn how the thing works. However, there are many, many people who either do read the directions or are not the slightest bit interested in doing something over and over until they get it right, or both. They don't care how something works, just that it does and that it's easy. This is entirely legitimate, however alien it is to me personally.

Hmmm. Why can't providers make available both the idiot-proof/user-friendly version for those who want it, and the source information for those who want that? Obviously some companies don't want the end user to have access to source data because they want to protect their intellectual property. This is short-sighted and impedes innovation, but I grasp the logic.

On the other hand, it is my impression that some companies' leaders don't understand their 'product' well enough to know the difference between help and hiding. They have a knack for selling or for managing, but no particular expertise in the domain. How can you develop a viable business model if you lack a fundamental grasp of that which you are selling? This is just plain disturbing, and all too common when the product is highly technical.

[The common practice of weaseling bizarre and ridiculous rights into the user agreements we're required to sign in order to gain access at all is a separate topic, which I'm mentally bookmarking for a later date.]

Comments anyone? (I put that in to trap myself into learning how to do this.....)

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