Written by David Tebbutt, MicroScope 07/86 - scanned


Do you get on well with your computer? Does it perform your every request with alacrity and good will? Do any of your programs ever disappear inside themselves, leaving you to wonder whether they've died or not?

Just recently I've been wondering what it is about computers that makes them so darned addictive. I've avoided the obvious things like speed of processing and reliable memory in favour of the more 'interpersonal' aspects that make some systems so much more enjoyable than others.

I ended up with just four key factors, which must be present in any system for it to stand any chance of success.

Firstly, a good system is one which responds instantly to your actions. As soon as you whack a key you need to see the screen respond. This applies when you're simply typing, and also at the command level when you're maybe switching between programs. The faster it happens, the more in control you feel.

When you need speed of response, absence makes the heart grow desperate. I'm not a particularly fast typist, yet I once used a word processor which just couldn't keep up with me. The display would always trail behind my typing, though I didn't often notice because I tend to look at the keyboard.

But it was a particular problem when doing naughty things like repeated deletions of words, when I did watch the screen. I always got caught with the keyboard buffer delivering another twenty or so deletes after I had lifted my finger from the keyboard.

As vital as speed, is feedback. In any sphere of life we like to be kept informed about what's going on especially when nothing appears to be happening. (Hanging around at foreign airports is a typical noncomputing example). One program I got hold of recently is really slow when it's trying to parse English sentences. It grinds and creaks, scanning this way and that in its frantic search for meaning.

If this all happened behind the scenes, with a blank screen, it would drive me crackers. But this particular program keeps me informed of progress by highlighting the words and phrases as they are tackled and understood.

Now, I'm told by people who know about these things that the program would run much, much, faster if it didn't have to keep telling the erk using it what's going on.

This may be true, but this particular erk would rather have the slower speed and the status display than a two-minute wait without any signs of progress. Any job which is going to take more than a couple of seconds should provide the user with a meaningful 'confidence window'

A good system must also give us leverage. A good application amplifies your own efforts. It increases your personal power. The words and figures you create can be honed, polished and manipulated in a way that would have been impossible with a typewriter or pen and ink.

Furthermore, an imaginatively prepared laser-printed memo or internal report has far more impact than a dot-matrix job, even when the words are exactly the same. And a spreadsheet impresses the socks off the average bank manager or boss (even if the actual figures are wrong).

But above all, computers are a joy to work with because of their good nature. You can really mess around with a computer and it never gets mad. You can keep changing your mind about what you want to do. You can heap abuse on it and blame it for all your own cock-ups and still it comes back for more. If you did these things to your staff, you'd have a walkout on your hands. (Which is probably why so many companies prefer automation to humans.) The computer is truly an obedient, uncomplaining servant.

Thinking about it, we could try these attributes out on our friends and colleagues. Wouldn't it be nice if everyone reacted instantly to our requests, kept us informed if there were to be delays, helped us make the most of our abilities (without expecting any credit) and retained a sweet and compliant nature at all times?

Sadly, I suppose, people just aren't like that. Even more sadly, many people in this business end up preferring the company of their and computers.

Now you know why.