what's a page?
Friday, February 18 2005
I experienced another trial-by-computer interface today when I was at the residence of one of my regular clients this afternoon. This client has to be in her 80s, and though she's an intelligent woman, one can't take anything for granted in terms of her knowledge of her iMac. In the past she'd used her computer exclusively for the most basic sort of word processing. More recently she's needed email capability, so I set her up with internet access. We'd tried AOL and then Earthlink, but something about her phone line proved unreliable for dialup so in the end we settled on Verizon DSL (which somehow does work over those same phone lines). As we'd gone from one ISP to another, it was essential to have an email account that was completely transportable. So I set her up with a free Yahoo.com email account and did what I could to get her Internet Explorer properly configured. Since her computer was running OS 9, Mozilla wasn't much of an option. I know there are versions compiled to run on OS9, but they're not solid enough for installation on the computer of someone long past retirement age.
The trial by interface took the form of a basic misunderstanding, the kind that's maddeningly impossible to perceive over a phone but is immediately obvious when you're actually visiting the client. I'd set the client's homepage to be Yahoo.com, and I told her that when she wanted to check her mail she should just click on the Mail icon at the top of the page. By "page," I was referring to the content delivered by Yahoo.com. But to my client, not accustomed to the windowed world of computers, everything she was seeing was the page. She's still yet to firmly grasp the concept of windows and why occasionally parts of them are hidden or why expected menus sometimes are replaced with unfamiliar ones (one of the most confusing things about the MultiFinder-derived Classic Mac interface). Being unfamiliar with web browsers, she didn't know that the browser itself has a static set of controls for navigation that do not change from one web page to the next. So when I'd been saying "click on the mail button" she'd been clicking on the stupid mail button that Internet Explorer includes just to the right of its other navigation buttons. This button automatically took her to the default mail client, Outlook Express, which had been configured for Earthlink back when we'd tried that. So her complaint was that the button I'd told her to click "keeps taking me to my old email." To ease the confusion I would have happily disabled this useless browser email button or else changed its behavior, but it's never obvious how to do such things when you actually need to do them. So instead the button had to be endured. I had to tell her that this button, though it said mail, was to be ignored. Normally the Mac interface is a kind of poetry of helpful imagery and metaphors, but here was a glaring exception, one that called into question the whole system of visual cues. For this elderly woman it had the unfortunate effect of further mystifying her computer.
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