Now it’s personal…

Well, I’ve finally done it. After years of using the Macintosh (system 6 and all the way up to Mac OS X 10.4.2) at work, I was finally in a personal & financial position to give Apple some of my hard earned cash and purchase one of their excellent computing devices.
For years I’ve used the Apple Macintosh platform professionally, now I’m dedicated to them personally.

So, cash in hand, I visited not my local Apple Centre, PC World or independent computer specialist, but my nearest branch of John Lewis Department Store.

The reasons for this choice are quite simple. They, unusually for a department store, stock the full range of Mac’s, from G5 tower all the way down to the little eMac, all at the standard prices that Apple charge. However, the killer detail here is that they give a free 2 year warranty on ALL computers. So effectively your getting another years worth of return-to-base warranty for free. I hope I’ll never have to use it, but I’m glad it’s there.

In the end I purchased an Apple iBook 1ghz G4, (I’m writing this article right now on this Mac). This choice has been a difficult one, and I have thought long and hard about it for a considerable amount of time. In the end it basically came down to 4 factors.

1) I need portability, (sadly this Mac will come in handy at work).

2) I don’t have the room for a huge set-up, I have 2 children under 3 and the thought of leaving a brand new G5 tower, eMac or iMac in the house with them while I’m at work, doesn’t bear thinking about. I guarantee that within a week the poor Mac would look as bad as those in PC World – with scratches, broken screens and messed up system folders.

3) Money. It’s strange, although I am a great fan of Apple, Steve Jobs and the Mac legacy, I always knew that when I finally invested in an Apple product, I would want to get my money’s worth. £799 for an iBook is very reasonable, however that is the maximum I would want to spend because I will get £799 worth of use out of the computer. If I spent £1300 on a 15″ Powerbook, I wouldn’t feel that I would use it enough to get my money’s worth. I’m not sure if that makes any sense, and it may make me a skinflint, but hey, whatever.

My impressions of the iBook? My first impressions were excellent, my existing impressions the same, and I’m betting my future impressions are unlikely to change.

However, my real reasons for writing this article are more about what happened on the way home, after buying this iBook. As they say, it’s all about the journey, rather than the destination, or in this case it’s the journey home, if you see what I mean.

Picture the scene. I’ve just spent the best part of 3 hours driving all the way to this department store. Half an hour to reach a hot, boiling city, and 2 3/4 hours to find somewhere to park. I’m sweaty, thirsty and tired. On visiting the department store, I had planned to play around with an iBook first for a while, to get the feel of the keyboard, to see if the screens were okay, but at this point I just want to pay the man and leave. So I do.

I ask if I can have a bag to carry the iBook back to my car. This is because I feel a little nervous about walking across a busy city to the car park with a £800 computer under my arm. Anyway, I finally make it back to the car alive, and congratulate myself on at last, having purchased the computer I had promised myself ever since my first experience of Mac’s, some 15 years earlier, (a IIci I think).

So I put the car keys in the ignition, press both electric windows to open the windows fully, and select the album ‘Surfer Rosa’ by The Pixies on the CD player. ‘Break My Body’ begins playing very loudly, and I pull away to queue to get out of the multi storey car park I’m in the middle of.

A few minutes later I’m driving through the city and all of a sudden the driver in the car behind me starts flashing me. A first I think it’s the music but he’s motioning with his fingers a flashing movement and I realise that I’ve left my indicators on. The music is so loud I didn’t hear them and I didn’t take much notice of their visual notification on the dashboard, so cursing my stupidity I try to turn them off. Except they’re not on. The indicators are not in the ‘on’ position but there on the dashboard they are clicking and flashing, and obviously flashing to everyone around me as well, hence the driver behind me indicating to me my apparent error.

So I make it to the next set of traffic lights and while stationery, pull the steering wheel full lock left and right, hoping that this will knock the indicators off. It doesn’t. I switch the engine off, take the keys out and they are still flashing. At this point I am swearing, cursing my luck and almost ready to get out of the car and thrash it to within an inch of it’s life with a handy branch or twig, in a Fawlty Towers induced fit of rage.

But, trying to think clearly, I switch the engine back on and decide to park somewhere safe and call the AA.

Presently I find myself parked safely in a lay-by and calling the AA. I call there number, get an answer machine asking me to press 1, 2 or 3. I press 1. Then a short message ensues telling me that all conversation are recorded and straight after this I am put through to what I assume is a human being at last.

After briefly outlining my problem, he asks for my AA number, address details and my mobile phone number. Now, I have a world class bad memory. I can never remember my mobile phone number, not a chance in hell, so I ask him to hold on whilst I look it up on my mobile phone.

I look at my mobile, and I press the button I assume is the button to look up address. Well, it’s not the button I press, it’s the one next to it. The button I press ends the phone call and cuts the AA man off.

Cursing my total stupidity I finally find my mobile number and call the AA again. After pressing the right options I am put through to a human being again. I get the message about messages being recorded, but then there is silence. Nothing just a light hum. After saying hello a few times the conversation finally starts and the operator, (a woman this time) cuts into the conversation and says, “I very sorry about that, the computer’s always doing this, the button to put a call through is right next to the mute button so that’s why you couldn’t hear me.”

After my recent button mistake I totally sympathise so I quickly outline my problem again and she asks for all my details, this time asking me where I am. Now, I know this city, but not necessarily by street name so I ask her to call me back in a few minutes, and in the meantime I will drive a short distance to find the street I am on. I do this and she calls me back. I give her my details, switch my engines off and press the electric windows back up. Then the indicators, which have been quietly and annoyingly clicking away all this time, finally stop.

Puzzled, I explain this to the operator, and apologise for wasting her time; the problem seems to have sorted itself out. She understands, and the phone conversation abruptly ends.

I sit back in my car and glance around as to why this has happened. It then hits me.

Directly below the 2 buttons to my left on the dashboard for the electric windows is the hazard warning light button. I had inadvertently switched these on as I opened the windows. I felt stupid and angry, but then I realised something.

It wasn’t my fault.

I had pressed the wrong button on my mobile and it had cut me off.

I had inadvertently pressed the hazard warning lights. This switch used to be (in previous models of the car), in a hard to reach place, just above the steering wheel. You couldn’t press it by mistake, but now it was all too easy. Plus as well, when the hazard warning lights do come on, the light on the dashboard, near the speedometer is exactly the same as if you’ve just indicated to turn left or right.

The AA operator had mistakenly muted me, instead of answering the call because it was all too easy to press this button by mistake.

The problem here isn’t the user, (me and the AA operator), it’s the interface designer, or more probably the geek who wrote the system, not understanding and giving scant regard to how real people operate these interfaces.

And all this brings me back to the iBook. Many Windows users may state that £699 is a lot to pay for an entry level portable, but they do not appreciate the benefits of good interface design. The way the power gauge goes orange when charging and green when fully charged. The pulsing light when you close the lid to tell you the iBook is asleep. The way the OS is predictable, easy to use, straightforward.

I expect the interface of any device to be predictable, not just the Mac, but phones, cars, toasters, fridges, everything. Destructive actions should always be well away from non-destructive, and there should always be a confirmation before any destructive action.

These are simple GUI guidelines that were drawn up by Apple years ago, if all interface designers whether in hardware or software followed these to the letter, consider how our lives would be improved.

Imagine how many man and woman hours are lost every day due to bad interface design. Seeing as 95% of the world uses an interface every day that breaks just about every one, it must run into the millions.

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