The Mac Has Never Been User-Friendly

by Chris Howard Jul 06, 2005

The computer industry sets itself up for a fall by continually promising the holy grail - user friendliness.

In reality computers are becoming less user-friendly and more complex. As fast as they add features to improve user-friendliness, they add others to complicate matters.

It’s all relative
So how do we tell if computers are user-friendly or not? The theory of relativity. User-friendliness is directly related to how experienced the user is. An interface can still be very intuitive but that is really tested by a novice user. In my past life when I was a programmer, it didn’t take long to build the system, what took all the time was building an interface. For want of a better expression, we had to “idiot proof” it. Not that the user is an idiot - far from it. Just inexperienced.

A funny story I experienced at work in 2002. A software vendor had just upgraded their application from DOS to Windows. They sent up their hotshot motor-mouth salesman to demonstrate it to the users. He knew how easy it was to use, so this would only be a five-minute demo for him.

Salesman (at 100mph) “It’s really easy. You just take the mouse click here, pull down this, click that, enter a few details, click…”
User: “What’s a mouse?”
Stunned silence.

It was so funny to watch - the salesman looked like one of those people you see running in one direction but looking another, who then hit a lamppost. Our guy had never used a computer except for this one at work that ran DOS. And, of course, it didn’t have a mouse.

Another story:

When my eldest was five, we bought him an old Mac Classic to learn keyboarding and mouse skills. One day I noticed he seemed to be using the mouse wrong. On closer inspection I found he was using it upside down! He’d turned it 180 degrees, so when he moved the mouse left, the cursor went right. And why did he do this? Because a mouse’s tail is at it’s bottom.

Using previous experience of what a mouse is and with no previous computer experience to bias him, he placed his own expectation and interpretation on how to use the computer. Remarkably, he had become quite adept at using the mouse this way.

This is what every novice experiences. Imagine though an older less dexterous person using a mouse for the first time? And then someone stuck two buttons on it! To my amazement, I have encountered many users who just never use the right click in Windows. This is meant to be one of those user-friendly features, yet for them it’s not. It’s not the way they are comfortable working. And in some cases they are scared of it. Which is also another common problem for new users - novices find computers (even Macs) quite intimidating.

Both these stories ironically, are about the mouse which was meant to make computers more user-friendly but the mouse is not alone. The QWERTY keyboard, the jargon, the operating systems, the applications… they all add up to an unfriendly, intimidating experience. There’d be very few people who haven’t experienced frustration using a computer - Macs included.

Do we give up?
Do we stop trying to make computers user-friendly? No. No way! But we should, as my experience shows, stop telling people they are. Because they’re not. Not even our beloved Macs.

With all my computer experience, I actually found learning the Mac OS X interface a steeper learning curve than others. I had to unlearn Windows ways of doing things. And that’s not to say that Windows does things wrong - just differently.

Like my son found, everything we do in life has to be learned and that learning is biased by previous experience. Everything we do a first time will likely pose challenges. But once we’ve learned something with all it’s quirks, we become complacent and think it’s easy. Until we try to show someone else.

How many of us technophytes provide support to friends and family? Why? Because computers are soooo user-friendly? Ha! While I was writing this, a friend rang and asked me to come over and get his broadband working. And he said something interesting, he said to me: “These things do not talk to me. I do not know their language”.

Therein is where computers stand apart. Here is someone who’s been using computers for several years yet still feels intimidated by them. Yes you can argue this is a technical and once off issue but it’s more than that that scares users.

Even though I wouldn’t have a clue how to fix a car, I don’t feel intimidated by cars. I get in, I understand the interface, it’s fairly consistent across all manufacturers, if something goes wrong I take it to the mechanic and say, “I don’t know anything about cars - can you fix it?” I don’t feel less confident in my ability to use the car and I don’t feel more incompetent or intimidated next time I drive one.

Yet with computers, the interfaces, the technicalities, the plethora of acronyms and other nerd-speak confound and intimidate. In the discussion on a recent article on Apple Matters, talk got onto the merits of Windows and it was interesting to hear people tell of their need for anti-viruses, firewalls and at least one anti-spyware application. Joe Consumer having to concern himself with things like this? Does not make computers user-friendly.

And don’t think Mac’s are that much more user-friendly…
- Look at Automator. Despite Apple’s claims, you still need a reasonable understanding of computing and program flow to learn it;
- And for the layman, having to drag and drop an application to install is a little less friendly than having an installer do it for you;
- The way applications show all files in an Open dialog is not user-friendly.

Let’s end the myth
When I had my business providing computer support to home and small business users, the slogan on my business card read:

It’s not that people are computer illiterate, it’s that computers are people illiterate

So many people found that lifted a great weight off their shoulders. It took away that intimidation and feeling of being a dumb, stupid, or an idiot. And why did they feel that way? Because someone told them or they’d heard that computers are user-friendly. And that wasn’t their experience.

User friendliness is a myth. Maybe one day they’ll be as easy to use as portrayed in Hollywood movies but until then should we keep telling people computers are user friendly, or this one is more so than that one? No - let’s just tell them they’re a damn pain! And that will actually make them feel better.

And to the teaser question - has there ever been a user-friendly Mac? Relatively speaking, maybe the original Mac.


  • Finally an objective comment on Mac on AppleMatters…
    Remember the penguins are angry, people arguing that Mac is user-friendly and not Linux. Thks for showing them that it is relatively true according to experience of the user…

    miss had this to say on Jul 06, 2005 Posts: 5
  • You pointed out cars as an example of user-friendly technology while it is not. Look at the certification process involved just to be allowed to drive a car—hours of instruction, even more hours of practice, two examinations—and at the end, you don’t even know how it works. Misbehave and it will kill you. Now, that’s what I call an intimidating piece of technology.

    So what? Technologies become more friendly to people once they are trained to use them.

    hitoro had this to say on Jul 06, 2005 Posts: 12
  • “User-friendly” is a marketing term.  Marketing is largely about lying to entice people to spend money.  We should stop using marketing terms to describle computers, and so much else.  But, I guess we’re all a little brain-washed by the constant barrage of advertising…

    Bill Barstad had this to say on Jul 06, 2005 Posts: 7
  • Hitoro - you make a very good point! Despite the fact that cars can kill us, people are actually more intimidated by computers!

    Chris Howard had this to say on Jul 06, 2005 Posts: 1209
  • I agree about the car thing. My comment too. For someone entering a car for the first time, I’d say it’s far more intimidating that using a computer.

    Ask your friends who drive automatic if they use anything other than Park, Reverse and Drive… maybe Neutral if they go through carwashes. Typically there are 2 other ‘gears’ that most don’t even know the function of.

    donovan had this to say on Jul 06, 2005 Posts: 19
  • Nothing is user-friendly.  Books even have a learning curve and they’ve been around for centuries.  Think about it.  It takes a child over 10 years before they can read an adult book all the way through.  A child can figure out how to use a computer within days, so this article is completely unfounded.

    bdkennedy1 had this to say on Jul 06, 2005 Posts: 5
  • You factor in the fact you had to “unlearn” the Windows way of doing things, but that isn’t a valid argument in how user-friendly a Mac is.  Sit both a Mac and Windows computer in front of a non-user, and you’ll find they are generally both as confusing, perhaps with OS X being able to do a few things easier.

    pixelbender had this to say on Jul 06, 2005 Posts: 1
  • I am a rarity in that I essentially had never used any computer platform to any extent until the year 2000.  In that year, I taught myself how to use both Windoze and the Macintosh platform.  I can say as one of those folks who did not have to “unlearn” anything that the Mac OS is much easier to learn and understand.  You do things on a Mac in a way that just makes sense.  It works the way my brain works.  I found myself saying things that appeared verbatim in the Switcher commercials a few years later.  OS X has only made it better and easier.  My two cents.

    Cubert had this to say on Jul 06, 2005 Posts: 4
  • The car comparison works on somee level, but it also fails. A car is a single purpose device. It drives, and you influence direction and speed. A computer is a multi-purpose device, and you need to know what you want to do. What I see from novice users is that they are afraid to “break” something. The concept of virtual information is difficult to grasp. That a regular backup keeps you in the dry, especially on a Mac where you don’t have to waste half your time keeping the machine running and avoiding the latest virus, does not cure that.

    Bad Beaver had this to say on Jul 06, 2005 Posts: 371
  • Your point is perhaps somewhat valid nowadays, however I would strongly disagree with the term “Never.” In 1986, I’d had a little experience with PCs, but I never got interested because it obviously needed a lot of work to master it.

    Then, the print shop where I worked bought a Mac, and within a couple of lunch hours of sitting down at it with no help at all, I was creating simple fliers and resumes. Those same two hours with the same amount of help (none) would have resulted in me endlessly typing in various desperate DOS prompts to no effect. It would have been impossible to intuit your way past the blinking cursor.

    My mom was having so much trouble with Windows 95 that I forced her to switch to Mac OS 7.5 and her learning curve increased measurably. Other friends that I’ve turned to Macs have similarly reported easier times of it than they expected.

    For myself, I was on a Mac at home, and Windows NT at work, and if I got stuck at work I found that I never was able to work through a problem with anywhere near the ease that I have always been able to do with my Mac.

    User interface and ease undoubtedly have a long way to go in attaining the ultimate consumer experience, but I do think there is still a great deal of evidence that Macs are easier for people to learn.

    Tideswimmer had this to say on Jul 06, 2005 Posts: 1
  • BTW the narrow-striped background of this site flickers like crazy, that is not very user friendly.

    Bad Beaver had this to say on Jul 06, 2005 Posts: 371
  • until the addition of the dock in os x, i would say that it would probably have been easier first sitting down at the windows computer.  the start menu is relatively easy to navigate, vs on mac first having to know to click on the hard drive, then navigate all the lists of programs for the one you need.  with os x though, i think apple has the edge imho.  i put my parents on it because they have very little computer experience and were confounded trying to deal with popups and spyware.  with the dock, they don’t even have to navigate the hard drive.  all the apps they use are right there in a simple, consolidated group.  i have to admit, coming first from windows that it took me over 30 mins to figure out how to shutdown mac os 9.  who would think that the shutdown command would be in the Special menu?

    sucafrutpi had this to say on Jul 06, 2005 Posts: 1
  • Isn’t it the silliest thing that in the days of the Macintosh Classic this model would come with an autobooting diskette with an interactive GUI tuition program plus a fairly decent manual, and nowadays we get no manual, no interactive anything, not even a “first startup AV tutorial” set of videoclips or a simple DVD, anything at all. These days I know far less about current Mac OSes (Classic or X) than I knew then. Abysmal online help, no detailed manual, etc.

    Every time I hear one of those supposedly funny tech support stories I think just how a design failure the product involved was.

    juanxer had this to say on Jul 06, 2005 Posts: 9
  • Nice article.  Although, it’s been almost 20 years since we’ve realized this.  Donald Norman pointed this out when he came up with phrases “Gulf of Evaluation” and “Gulf of Execution.”

    The “Gulf of Execution” refers to overcoming the barrier of getting computers to do what we want.

    The “Gulf of Evaluation” refers to overcoming the barrier of understanding what our computers are trying to communicate to us.


    All computing devices (as well as other tools) have to overcome these barriers.  And with computers, it’s even more difficult because they are typically designed to be general purpose devices, offering very few (if any) physical affordances to assist with a task.

    whymustichooseausername had this to say on Jul 06, 2005 Posts: 2
  • I moved from OS8.6 to OSX a couple of weeks ago after buying
    a new iMac G5, and found the transition somewhat traumatic….
    most of it is ok, but the most confusing thing is the file hierarchy…
    Under the old system I always knew where I was-with OSX I keep
    saving things & not knowing where they are.I know you’re s’posed
    to use spotlight for this, but to me that’s like saying ” Drive without knowing where you are, you can always phone someone one your mobile….”  not happy with that.

    getrichs had this to say on Jul 08, 2005 Posts: 1
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