Wednesday, August 27, 2008

More on broken metaphors

In my last post I talked a bit about how it's our fault as programmers if users are confused by the user interface metaphors we use. We do use a lot of metaphors in programming, and mangle and mix most of them. Last post it was using "print screen" as a metaphor for copying the screen rather than as a literal command to print the screen. Users are understandably dumbfounded by the nonsensical nature of this design choice.

Here's another example of a broken metaphor. Think about cutting and pasting in real life. Anybody who worked on a school newspaper or yearbook in the pre-computer age knows exactly how this works. You use your scissors to clip text from galley proofs, or photos, or whatever. You do a lot of cutting, then paste things back in to your new document with a little jar of rubber cement and a brush (just like the icon!). The resulting document is photoset and printed. But that's not how Windows works.

Microsoft broke the cut/paste metaphor in Windows by only allowing one item at a time on the clipboard. As of Vista it's still broken, though programs like Yankee Clipper fix it. A useful application of the otherwise mostly useless animation in Vista would have been to animate the cutting process, so that Ctrl-X results in the text moving and shrinking onto a clipboard System Tray icon, which would hold multiple clipboard entries. This would advertise the new clipboard functionality, but they didn't do it, nor did they add the new functionality to advertise; and for the life of me I can't figure out why.

(In other cases Windows does do such animations, as in closing a window, but even that's ever so slightly broken. The window will shrink to the default location of the taskbar - at the bottom of the screen - even if your taskbar has been relocated to the top or side of the screen. If you've moved the taskbar and the animation ceases to be helpful... it's just misleading. It's a good idea with mediocre execution.)

Microsoft further breaks the cut/paste metaphor in Office. There's a Clipboard, but it's not the Windows clipboard, and it's somewhat broken even in the most recent builds of Office 2007. For instance, cutting and pasting isn't at all consistent. In Word, when you cut the text disappears from the document and appears in the clipboard. In Excel, cutting a cell copies the cell, but it doesn't disappear from the spreadsheet. Instead, Excel puts an animated border around the cell. This looks exactly as if you've simply copied the cell, and you don't know the difference until you try to paste it back in. Microsoft managed to ignore very simple rules... cutting removes the item. Copying does not. If the Microsoft Office team can't keep the rules straight in their own heads, is it any wonder that the users can't? (By way of contrast, OpenOffice.org Calc does cut and paste right, so I don't think there's a technical reason why it's broken in Excel.) And it's absolutely inexplicable why MS Office needs its own clipboard manager, when something like Yankee Clipper does the same job for the entire operating system, which should be providing the functionality without an extension at all.

These are the kinds of things that confuse users and generate support calls. The very same support calls that are often used to illustrate "stupid users", who are so ironically labeled only because they expect the metaphor to be logically applied, whereas the software designers and support technicians do not.

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