Dirk Knemeyer

Operating Systems: anatomy of a poor interface

With all of the development dollars that go into operating systems – most notably the Microsoft Windows family – why are the interfaces so very poor?

This question was birthed during a favorite activity: relaxing with a friend, spitballing about different futurist or philosophical concepts. In this case, we were speculating about the future of portable interfaces as technologies and applications continue to merge. We eventually made our way to my laptop computer and the current ineffectual interface of the O/S.

A better interface

Interface utopia is either invisible or enhances the information or experience. After all, that is the purpose of the interface in the first place. The interface is simply a medium, one that should be as inconspicuous as possible. Due to the limitations of technology, we have become conditioned to believe that the interface is both something that we need to be aware of and a tangible part of an experience. That is simply not true.

When considering interfaces for a particular medium, I typically ask three basic questions that encourage the creation of a better interface: (1) What is the theoretically easiest interface to interact with, regardless of whether or not it is possible to achieve? (2) What tools, materials or technologies are available to design the interface with? (3) What is the actual easiest interface to create and implement, synthesizing the ideal with the available tools, materials and technology?

The web has taught us a lot about good interface design. Basic rules of information architecture and experience design teach us that it should be quick and simple to find what we want, and the process of doing so should be as intuitive and as rich as possible.

This begs the question: since operating systems are designed and programmed by some of the brightest people in the world, working for some of the finest technology companies, why aren’t the interfaces on their applications better?

Wither windows

The two primary issues that I have with the Microsoft Windows interface are usability and findability. From a usability perspective, Windows is a system designed for an experienced participant. You and I might take the nuances of “left-clicking versus right-clicking” for granted, and might know how to create a shortcut to the desktop or put a program in the “Start” menu, but these are far from intuitive activities. Combine that with the many unnecessary “clicks” that the interface often demands, and you are left with poor usability.

From a findability perspective, and at the risk of my own credibility and competence, there are times when I’m not totally clear where to find my own files and programs. What folder? What file name? Where is the dreaded “OLK” folder? Consider: what must it be like for people who are new to computers and trying to figure out where everything is after a few weeks of accruing files and programs? Simply put, it is a non-intuitive mess.

Compare this to a strong web application. Websites are careful to provide tools to help you easily find what you are looking for, such as a site map or a search function. Actually, the search function is the most effective tool of all, yet it is clumsily applied in Microsoft Windows. Yes, if you click on the “Start” menu you can find the “Search.” But forgetting that the “Search” should be on the top level – not something that you need to click two levels into – it is poorly applied on the O/S. My friend, Andrew, suggested that this “Search” feature would overcome my objections to the system’s usability. Once I clicked into it I was directed, “To start your search, follow the instructions in the left pane.” There were eight more options to click into, followed by even more options that you need to click into.

They must be joking.

Google the great

Thousands of websites – many of which have a small fraction of the development dollars of Microsoft – allow you to get good “Search” results after a single click, including searching the entire Internet using a portal like Google.

Going into the theoretical for a moment, the best interface would be one that responded to human thought. Other preferable interfaces would respond to human movement (think Minority Report), human eye patterns or human voice. Actually, there are some interface devices that do allow for that level of human-computer interaction. But the technology is alternately either very unsophisticated or not to the level of universally applying to mainstream operating systems.

Which leaves us with the keyboard and the mouse. And the “Search” function.

The Google Toolbar is one of my favorite things. Unobtrusively integrated into the Microsoft Explorer web browser, this wonderful tool allows me to input any word or words, hit return, and immediately get thorough Google search results. While I do not experiment with enough search engines to declare Google the best, it is good enough that the idea of even trying another one does not interest me. Being someone who is always looking for the next best thing, my comfort level really says something about how well it works for me. Anyway, this one little application allows instant, accurate, relevant searching of the entire web, within which are at least…well…a gaggle of different web pages. Amazing.

Imagine – keywords

Consider this: right on the desktop is an open search field. Every program and file includes a set of common-sense keywords pre-installed – with the potential for participant customization. Every file – of every format – can have keywords entered when saving. Yes, files could still be saved in traditional digital folders for participants who prefer that method (folders could even auto-create and populate through the keywords themselves). However, rather than moving through a hierarchical system that is not well defined and becomes less intuitive as the complexity increases, we have immediate access to anything we want. It can even be customized to the naming convention that is most intuitive for each individual participant.

Think of the advantages! Even those nasty corrupt files that technical support people try to help us find deep in the bowels of our file hierarchies – as viruses or other antagonists are wreaking havoc on our experience – could be at our fingertips with only a single click upon startup. That is to say nothing of the way we craft our own unique experience. No need to memorize which partition of the hard drive to look in. Or which “folder -> sub-folder -> sub-folder” path to take. Or fumbling about a cluttered desktop where you keep everything to avoid trying to memorize where things are located. Type in a single (or multiple) word(s) and be a single click away from unmitigated access.

One step at a time

There are many other things that could improve the Microsoft Windows interface, but this seems so intuitive, easy and obvious. Simply put, given the successful application of search technology on the web – for many years now – to be saddled with the same basic interface since we were first impressed with the original Windows 95 almost 10 years ago is inexcusable. The desktop metaphor continues to plod along, despite being outstripped by the technology.

The operating systems that we use are so very important to how we work, how we think, how we perform. For them to get in the way – to impair our thinking, to derail our momentum, to take up the valuable processing space in our minds – does not make sense. Particularly when appropriate technology to make a major improvement is already widely in use on an application that runs within the environment.

Yes, we can concept a variety of possible improvements, some practical and some futuristic. But this is one approach that is simply too intuitive – and ultimately rather basic – to continue to ignore.

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