Just the way they do it


Roopinder Singh

iPhone 4 is here and as usual it was all over the media; it’s slimmer, has a 100 improvements over the last model, the battery lasts longer and in short, you MUST have it. “What will I do with my iPhone that I can’t do with my phone?” asked my wife.

Now, she is much into phones, had a smart phone years ago when they were rare, expensive, and weighed a tonne, and thanks also to Jansher, our son, is more than usually cued in about matters electronic. The query was more rhetorical than actual, since she knew the specs of the new phone as any well-informed tech-savvy person.

I was stumped. None of the things that I said seemed to be convincing enough reason for a new purchase, till I hit the nail in the head, more due to exasperation than thought, and said: “It just the way they do it.”

Now, that set us thinking. We had struggled in the morning on the Indian Railways website, among the most visited websites in India, trying to book Shatabdi tickets to Delhi and back, but finally giving up after many frustrating delays. Now, this is something that I have done in the past, so it is not that I was unfamiliar with the process, but the site is a good example of a counter intuitive functioning, and despite some recent improvements, retains the unmistakably tied in the blue ribbon of the morbid bureaucracy. By the afternoon, she had booked the tickets, through a travel website that was friendly and fast.

Our user experience on any website is governed by its navigation. As we navigate the site, we either bless the persons who thought of what we would be doing and made it easier for us to do it, or get exasperated with the way the website is done. We would, therefore, avoid it as much as possible in the future, and ignore its existence if we can.

When we use computers and electronic devices, the place where interaction between humans and machines occurs is called user interface. Any machine is designed to do certain tasks, but in the case of machines that we use constantly, what sets one apart from the other, everything else being equal, is the fact that we interact better with some machines than other. The fact is that a lot of thought and attention must go into just how this interaction takes place. It is not only we who are interacting with the machine; it is the way the machine has been set up to interact with us.

In this specialised field, the website we were talking about failed, whereas others passed, as a result of which they got our business. Now, by now, long-time readers might have realised that I am among those ancient numbers who have actually worked on computers that did not have user interfaces, the DOS kinds. It is another matter that in India we often have computers that still run on them!

When the Mac came out, it was just a phenomenon like no others. In the mid 1980s, we unpacked it straight out of the box, plugged it in, and my first story was filed that very evening, printed out on a dot-matrix printer with a font called Chicago. The machine had a nine-inch black and white screen, and as the joke went, even if you thought about opening it, the Apple warranty was void.

What a great user experience it was! WYSIWYG (what you see is what you get) was a huge leap over the “control codes” equivalent to today’s “mark-up codes” that had to be inputted into the typesetting machines and computers that preceded the graphic user interfaces that we are familiar with today.

Apple was not the first GUI computer; in fact, it got its GUI under license from Xerox Alto, but took the lead, and retained certain elegance in the way the GUI was executed, even as eventually Windows garnered the market share.

Apple operating system has a certain verve that makes it the favourite of creative people. Even though it has a small market share its influence on the way people use computers is undeniable. Windows GUI is inspired by the Apple OS, as is much of what we use in computers today.

Rajiv Kaul has been in love with his Apple iPhone since he got it. He takes pictures with it, uses it for communication, and much, much more. A person who was totally a Windows man, he is a partner in a company that designs graphic interfaces for software firms. They recently worked on software that helps prepare students for the SAT exams.

“Whenever we went abroad, we were told to get a Mac-like feel in our design. So we got ourselves Mac computers, and then saw the difference,” he says.

It’s just the way they do it. Technical details are important, but they are a tip of the iceberg that is Apple iPhone. What sets it apart, like other Apple products, like iPod, iPad and not to forget, the Apple’s computers, both desktop and laptop – is the whole experience, including the hype!

The article was published in the Lifestyle section of The Tribune on June 22, 2010.

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