[darcs-users] Re: 5 Year Old Bull in a China Shop

John S. Yates, Jr. jyates at netezza.com
Tue Mar 22 17:07:05 UTC 2005

"Thomas Zander" <zander at kde.org> wrote in
news:20050321190743.GA20707 at planescape.com

> Many even think its faster to write an email then to read the manual.

There may be a subtle value judgment here that might be used to justify not
making the interface as intuitive as possible:

  "If they just read the manual they would grok our design"

<story alert>

Thirty years ago I had a very formative experience developing a controller
for a half megawatt plasma cutting machine used to cut steel plate in heavy
construction.  (Our first customer was Marion Power Shovel, the NASA
subcontractor responsible for actually building the Saturn rocket crawler.)

Cybermation was a four person startup consisting of two dyslexics, a college
drop out, and a victim of a condition whose name escapes me now but came
down to having zero medium term memory.  What was clear from the outset was
that, while this team had the skills to design the controller, it utter
lacked the ability to produce a user manual.  On the other hand the users
were going to be blue collar operators in hard hats on a shop floor -- guys
unlikely to crack a user manual even if it did exist.  These were guys who
viewed computers as black magic, things so deep, complex and fragile that
they felt a vague unease and subtle repulsion.  Our goal was to overcome
these feelings.  Further, given the limited funding that went into our
startup, minimizing training costs was absolutely crucial.

The control panel included an assortment of push buttons, knobs, switches
and readouts.  All input interpretation and display was programmed.  The
goals for the "UI" focused entirely on the training experience:

o Convince these guys in their hard hats that there was NOTHING that they
could do via our control panel that could harm either the cutting machine or
the controller (a property not necessarily true of competing controllers)

o Persuade them that this controller would not frustrate their expectations:
irrespective of its current state if there was an obvious (and safe)
response to a given operator input then that is exactly what the controller
would do

The crucial observation was that "obvious" in this case -- especially during
our one hour shop floor training session -- had to be in the eyes of guys
who most likely did not read manuals but who probably had been exposed to
many other machine tools and control panels in the course of their careers.
We could ill-afford the luxury of some idiosyncratic or unfamiliar UI, no
matter how theoretically attractive it might have been to our engineering

Training really did consist of powering up the machine, thirty minutes of
oral presentation, and then a period of randomly hitting buttons, twisting
knobs and throwing switches.  After goofing for a minute or so we would
request multiple volunteers to step forward and to operate the various
elements of the control panel at random and at the same time.  Invariably
within minutes everyone was having at it.  At that point we could announce
that the machine now was theirs and take our leave.

On a number of occasions I returned to an earlier installation for
maintenance or an upgrade.  What was truly gratifying was hearing from
machine operators how confident they were of their mastery of our controller
and how much they wished more controllers were equivalently confidence

</story alert>

Anyway, for better or for worse, reading manuals is a skill that is becoming
less and less widespread in our modern world.  If darcs aspires to broad
adoption then it must be easy to learn and easy remember with minimal
reference to manuals or other extended pieces of prose.


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