Thursday, September 09, 2010


“Friendly” user interfaces

It’s long been a peeve of mine that some computer programs are programmed to try to sound friendly, cheerful, or just colloquial. It seems out of place to me, forced, overly artificial. I don’t mean that I want all the output from computers to sound like the stilted science-fiction stuff, saying affirmative instead of yes, and the like. But neither do I ever want to see (or hear) things like Oops!, Hurray!, nor even I’m sorry, coming from my laptop, mobile phone, car, or washing machine.

Some examples:

It’s common when you’ve finished installing new software on your computer for the installation package to wrap up with a message like, Congratulations! You’ve successfully installed the Frobozz Magic MP3 Converter! Perhaps the folks at Frobozz should be congratulated for having sold me the software, but I neither need nor merit kudos for having run the installation program without spilling my coffee on the laptop in the process. Just stick with telling me that the installation was successful... and skip the exclamation points, while you’re about it.

If you look at your Spam folder in Gmail, and it’s empty — most likely because you’ve emptied it — you will see the message, Hooray, no spam here! Again with the unnecessary emphasis; let’s skip the bangs. Writer D. Keith Mano has been quoted as saying, of exclamation points, They may be used only in dialogue, and then only when the speaker has just been disemboweled. But more than that, skip the fake cheer, as well. It’s not as if I’m magically spam-free: I just trashed it, so of course there’s no spam here. Just say that, or, better still, say, This folder is empty.

Gmail’s new Priority Inbox feature does something similar if your Important and Unread group is empty: Woohoo! You’ve read all the important messages in your inbox. Please, forgo the Woohoo!

New York City’s public radio station, WNYC, recently had a talk program about Computers and Language, to which there’s a comment by one Amy, from Manhattan, who seems to agree with this point:

It’s not so much having a computer try to sound human that bothers me. But when an ATM screen signs off by saying It’s a pleasure to serve you, I find that very irritating. It’s a machine. It doesn’t get any pleasure out of serving me. I guess its programmers think that comes off as polite, but it doesn’t to me.

Exactly. So dispense with oops and I’m sorry, and don’t tell me that Flickr is having the hiccups.

Clifford Nass, a professor at Stanford University, has a new book called The Man Who Lied to His Laptop, and he’s been on the talk-show circuit with it. He was on Science Friday last week, and here’s an item from the Wall Street Journal about the book.

His research shows that many people do respond in interesting ways — favourably or un- — to computer communication. From the Science Friday discussion (starting around 2 minutes in):

Ira Flatow: You start out in the front of your book talking about... that German car makers would not put a female voice into the GPS.

Clifford Nass: Well, even worse, BMW did in fact put a female voice in their GPS, and they actually had to have a product recall, because German drivers would not take directions from a woman. And what was particularly striking was, even after the help desk, when people were calling in angry, tried to explain that in fact it wasn’t a real female in the car, and in fact that all the people who had designed the GPS and the directions were male, nonetheless, people were unfazed, and insisted on changing the voice.

Maybe those people who objected would be mollified by deferential stuff inserted into the GPS speech. Excuse me. I don’t mean to be pushy, but didn’t you tell me earlier that you wanted to take the next left onto Löwengartenkinderklammerkleinenvolgelstrasse? Maybe.

As for me... nein, danke.

No comments: