September 21st, 2007

One person's bloat is someone else's feature

Most people are familiar with the way that indicators work in a car: you have a stalk sticking out of the steering wheel, and you knock it up or down depending on whether you want to indicate right or left. After you've finished your turn, the indicator will automatically turn off.

On a motorbike, it's a bit different. There's a control on the left handlebar, so you move that with your thumb. However, turning is mainly done by leaning, rather than just using the handlebars, so the bike doesn't really know when you've finished; this means that you have to turn the indicator off yourself. When I first took motorbike lessons, the school bike had a horizontal slider for the indicators, with three possible positions: left, centre, right. As you'd expect, left and right would indicate in those directions while the centre position meant that the indicators were off. The snag was that it was quite easy to overcompensate. For instance, I'd intend to move the control from right to centre, but I'd push it too far and wind up indicating to the left. Bear in mind that you wear gloves on a bike, which reduces the amount you can feel, and you can't hear a gentle ticking noise like you can in a car. Looking down at the controls is strongly discouraged, so I did make mistakes every so often. When I bought my first bike, it was the same model as the school bike (a Suzuki GN125) but from a later year. One subtle change was the way that the indicator worked: the slider control would now spring back to the centre after you pushed it left or right, and to turn it off you pushed it inwards. It's just a small thing, but it made my life easier for a feature that I used frequently.

It's unusual to see motorbike adverts at all, but car adverts rarely mention anything like this; they prefer to focus on glamorous locations (and actors). I think there's a similar issue with computer programs: the most useful changes don't get much publicity, as compared to the superficial changes (e.g. the "Aero" interface in Vista).

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The key point here is that if you're writing software with a large customer base then that will affect your priorities. Here are a few interesting articles by Microsoft employees which illustrate that principle:

Why isn't my time zone highlighted on the world map?
In Windows 95, you could click on a world map to choose your time zone. However, certain national borders are disputed, which led to the fun and games of geopolitics...

How many Microsoft employees does it take to change a lightbulb?
In a big product like Windows, you can't just change a few lines of code; this change has to be documented, tested, etc. (There's a similar post here: *bilities.)

The UI design minefield - er... flower field??
I used to play Minesweeper a lot on my first PC, but I hadn't tried it lately. It turns out that it's still there on Vista, along with some improved graphics and sound effects. However, some people felt that it was insensitive to the victims of real landmines, so you can now change the appearance to be a flower field instead.

And finally, this entry is very funny:
Features that didn't make the cut
"This was really a great feature, and it was nice to cater to the power users for a change and not coddle up to wimpy users who need sissy languages like EMACS to get anything done."

Vista boot menu

I've been dual-booting between Windows XP and Windows Vista for a while, so the boot menu gave two choices:

  • Earlier Version of Windows

  • Microsoft Windows Vista

I decided that it would be a bit neater if the first option referred to Windows XP specifically. In Windows 2000/XP, this information was stored in a "boot.ini" file, so you could modify it with a text editor as long as you were careful. However, it's now stored in a binary file, a bit like the registry hive. Steve Lamb posted an entry about this recently, recommending the (free) application VistaBootPRO. That program does look quite user friendly, but since I'm getting ready for my Vista exam I decided that I'd be better off figuring out how to change the display name with the built-in tools.

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