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.


  • The Mac platform is undoubtedly “user-friendly”.
    The fact that someone has to “unlearn” something to learn something new… is pure nonsense.
    If one is already proficient with the PC, what on earth does he have to “unlearn” to use a Mac???
    I’m saying that the majority of the human population in this world are idiots.
    OS for idiots… while not insulting the smart professionals…
    That’s something impossible to create.

    But, Mac OS X tries very hard to please both ends.
    Windows makes people think that spyware popups are actually pre-installed in their PCs.

    simpleuser had this to say on Jul 10, 2005 Posts: 2
  • The story is very funny especially the part where the client was asking “what is a mouse?”.I am pro gamer now and I must admit that even I have some voids when it comes about computers.For example a month ago I had to buy a new computer and I went to a custom built gaming computers specialist and he started to talk about some things I have never heard about until then.So I guess we all have some voids when it comes about technology.

    Aramica had this to say on Sep 16, 2011 Posts: 14
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