Fellow geeks: it is time to let go

To my friends and family, as “a computer guy”, I essentially become the poster boy for the entire industry. I’m sure many of you reading this can relate. I’m responsible for anything related to computers: operating systems, applications, hardware, you name it. And, frankly, in this role, I have to be embarassed for our industry. We have totally failed the average real-world user.

The auto industry must have gone through the same transition in the early life-cycle. Cars were first developed for car-geeks by car-geeks. At some point, real users were brought into the equation. With computers, we are not there yet. The fundamental problem may be a bit worse with computers. Certainly, the type of users, the geeks vs. the non-geeks, are diametrically opposed. It is very difficult to serve both constintuencies. Today, we barely even try.

One person to whom I serve in this advocacy role is a womam in her eighties that purchased her first computer within the last few years. Talk about being embarassed for the industry. For the tasks she wants to perform, there is no excuse for what we put this poor woman through. It is practically criminal. We should be embarrassed.

We geeks have to be blamed for demanding PCs with so many obscure features. Reviewers in the popular PC press are no better. They frequenty hype applications as fantastic when they are utterly unreliable, or simply don’t work at all. You seldom see a bad review of a widely recognized brand. Something is fishy there, but that’s a topic unto itself, for another day.

As a supposed power-user, I often purchase software I can’t use. It is particularly frustrating that often such software applications are highly regarded among the popular press, yet the applications are just plain garbage. They typically have a feature list a mile long, with literally hundreds of functions described on the box. Usually, I only care about a few features, often just the single primary function of the application. Many times I find that these well-known name-brand applications simply don’t work at all. They don’t even do their primary function, to say nothing of the other 184 things they supposedly do. If this happens to people like me, where does that leave the poor real-world non-geek user?

So what about the Mac? I’m an avid Mac fan, but even it needs to get better. For a long time, I have said that a real user can get far more done at the end of a day on a Mac that is 10-times ‘slower’ than a Windows PC, because they spend so much more time achieving their objectives, as opposed to struggling with the machine. This argument doesn’t seem to hit home however, because the geeks still run the show, and they tend to measure productivity in CPU cycles as opposed to end-result work cycles. And the desired end-results of the geeks is quite different from those of non-geeks. The former includes the time spent screwing around with the PC as part of the end-result, whereas to the non-geek, any time spent tweaking the system for the system’s sake is time not spent achieving productive results.

There is admitedly a hardware price-penalty in terms of raw CPU cycles bang for the buck in buying a Mac compared to a low-end no-name PC, but I have argued for a long time that this was easily offset when measured in real-world productivity. But such numbers don’t appear on the spec. sheets and if the difference is $300-$500, it’s very hard for the non-geek real-world buyer to appreciate when comparing the spec. sheets of two machines side by side, especially with the geek advisors pushing for more Giga this and more Giga that.

We don’t have marketing data about whether there are more users in the geek category or more in the real person category buying computers. The marketing geniuses in our industry can’t know, because they only make computers for the geeks, so how would they know what percentage of people buying computers aren’t geeks. We essentially force non-geeks to become geeks, or at least learn some geek, to be able to use a computer. That is just wrong.

So it’s a self-selecting feedback loop. As long as we build computers for geeks, and they sell because it’s the only kind of computer people can buy, we think the geeks are buying computers, and so on. Until we build computers that are targeted to non-geeks and actually serve well in that role (i.e. they work), how will we know whether that market will succeed. Today this is very difficult. The geeks run the show. If your new product doesn’t pass the geek-test, it will not get good reviews; it will not be popular among the geeks, who the non-geeks turn to for advice. There is no reward for building systems for non-geeks today. The Mac suffers tremendously from the geek-dominated world. The less user-friendly and the geekier the better. It’s insane. Of course, this may partially explain the sluggish PC sales the industry is experiencing.

As the geeks that the non-geeks turn to for help, we have a responsibility to put their needs before ours, to put ourselves in their shoes, to be objective, and downright critical when necessary. We must recognize that the needs of non-geeks are significantly different than ours and not assume the non-geeks want to be like us. There should be a ‘productivity index’ or an ‘ease of use’ index on the spec. sheet of every computer and application sold to consumers, where the index is defined and set by the non-geeks, by anthropologists, sociologists and regular users. The theme here is basically “if you love something, set it free.” It is time for us geeks to let go, to give control of the future design of PCs to the people who really use them.

2 comments for “Fellow geeks: it is time to let go

  1. Sometimes I feel like we’re inflicting this upon ourselves. How many times have you chosen the "lesser" product. The mail client that did not do MIME. The addressbook that is not part of mail client. How many times did you sit down and write a letter using notepad or vi? (Without running it through a program after that, of course!)

    And since you never did, and since I never did, we recommend and install software for our mums and dads, girlfriends and non-geeks which we use ourself. Emacs, and Word, and Outlook, and the BBDB, and whatnot.

    We are destroying the business case for simple software while we are bemoaning the spread of complex software.

  2. I agree. And I would add that it is not just users like us, but the press as well.

    We bias toward the complex. We have to start reversing that view, and begin to favor simplicity, ease of use, and reliability.

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