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User Friendliness: Do Computers Have to be Clinical and Boring?
by: Daniel Punch
While sleeping through a lecture recently I roused for just long enough to catch the lecturer saying that "Error messages should not try to be funny or amusing, they should be clear and concise". This got me thinking about the ever-elusive goal of user friendliness. The concept has changed much over the years with packages such as DOS going from being one of the easiest packages on the market, to now being complicated, convoluted, and ignored. I have begun to wonder why I am being taught that computers have to be boring to be user friendly.

The predictable nature of computers is quite dull. I study computers and work with them, so I'm used to experiencing a certain number of faults every now and then. I find these dull and depending on how close my current deadline is, downright infuriating. On the Internet side of things there is little quite as irritating as running into a 404 page when you're trying to find something. However, the other day I ran into a site that displayed random 404 Haikus and instead of being upset at the fact that my time was being wasted, I ended up typing in bizarre addresses just so that I could read all of the little poems. You can find a few lists of 404 Haikus from a simple search in Google. Humorous website Homestarrunner.com has an entertaining page when you get the address wrong that screams "Four-oh-foured!" and displays a very entertaining message. They have another 404 page on their site that is a hilarious cartoon you can watch.

In terms of applications, games occasionally have amusing error messages such as the one in 'Escape From Monkey Island' with the title "Congratulations, you have found a bug!" and concludes with "...get back to work". There's naturally a bit more leniency and tendency towards entertaining secrets in games. Easter Eggs used to be a lot more common in software applications. These are hidden sections of code that the average user will never activate but which provide an amusing result when they do. For a large list go to http://www.eeggs.com and search for a specific type of software program that you use. There may be a few minutes of hidden entertainment to be found.

Some of the greatest Easter Eggs came from Microsoft's software stable. Word 97 used to have a great little pinball game built in if you followed the correct steps, while Excel 97 had a fun little 'flight simulator' built in. Unfortunately employees are apparently no longer allowed to include these after some offensive messages were once included in a program.

Companies now require a very professional image and software costs quite a lot to develop, so we're likely to see all the amusing quirks removed from software that's released making it nothing but functional. I think that this is unfortunate. I agree that error messages need to be functional and let the user know what's gone wrong but there's no harm in taking the edge off the fact that they've possibly just lost a few hour's work by adding a little humor into the picture. As long as common sense is adhered to I don't really see why my grey pop up boxes all need to say exactly the same thing and be filled with data that's largely useless to me. Thank you, I realize that the program has encountered an error. I assumed this when it stopped working. Why not give me a reason to actually read error messages instead of having to dismiss them as soon as they appear?

I think the idea of user friendliness has become too clinical and precise. We have rules and structures defining what is or isn't helpful. We put fancy, bubbly skins on the dull and mundane and think that we're making it all more interesting. Just occasionally I'd like my computer to pop up and say "Human Error. Please replace user and try again."

About the author:

Daniel Punch
M6.Net Web Helpers
http://www.m6.net

Daniel Punch is a writer working at M6.Net: 'The web-hosting company for humans.' M6.Net is working hard to help humanity experience the power and freedom to develop their own part of the Internet, to share their information and connect with anyone, anywhere, anytime.


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