Efficient vs Approachable (choose your phrase carefully)

Posted on by Chris Warburton

I am very interested in human computer interaction (HCI), and I like to follow the trends and experiment with new innovations, plus I try wherever possible to commend developers who make different and interesting things, regardless of whether they are any good or not, since experimentation is key to finding better ways of doing things than we have now. Afterall, the same processes which turned slime into us are responsible for birth defects and fatal genetic diseases, you can’t have the good without the bad.

I find a big problem with the phrase “easy to use”, since it covers many varied situations. “Easy to use” and “hard to use” can both describe the same thing at the same time, since the words used are so vague; “use” covers a lot of ground, as do “easy” and “hard”. Therefore I try where possible to use more specific words. The most common ones I use are efficient/inefficient and approachable/confusing. Why are those more descriptive? Here’s an example: Compare the Vi text editor to the Leafpad text editor.

Vi is easy to use since its keyboard commands mean you never have to take your hands off the keyboard. All formatting, editing and control functions can be accessed the same way, via a few button presses. This could also be called efficient.

Vi is hard to use since it doesn’t have any buttons and nothing is labelled. The whole interface must be learned and you have to look in the manual just to find out how to quit. This could be described as confusing.

Leafpad is easy to use since buttons are labelled and organised in a menu. Different tasks are given different places, structuring the interface. This could also be called approachable.

Leafpad is hard to use since it requires a whole graphical environment just to start. To make selections and issue commands you need to constantly swap your hands between the keyboard and the mouse. Some things take longer to do than others, because they’re buried in menus. This could also be called inefficient.

As you can see, both can be described as easy and hard at the same time, even though those words are mutually exclusive. That means the words easy and hard are wrong to use. Whilst we can’t really draw much meaning from saying “Vi is easy but hard”, we can say “Vi is efficient but confusing”. Likewise we can say “Leafpad is approachable but inefficient”. Both have their advantages and their disadvantages. To someone who spends a lot of time in a text editor, for example a programmer or a journalist, it would be sensible to invest the time to learn Vi. However, for a general audience Leafpad would probably be more appropriate, thus the default text editor on a mass market operating system should be Leafpad rather than Vi. The same argument can be used for Blender, since its own peculiarities make it very efficient for someone who knows what they’re doing, but make it confusing and unwieldy for someone who doesn’t want or need to spend the time learning the interface. The only difference here is that I don’t know anything as capable as Blender to contrast it with.

Regardless of what experienced users and developers may prefer, the approachable option should always be the default. Saying “I prefer XYZ” doesn’t particularly matter when you know how to use a package manager. The defaults should be chosen to suit those who don’t know how to use a package manager, or even what one is, since those are the users who will be using the defaults no matter what (because they know of no alternatives). Please make their lives easier.

The end.