Thursday, February 11, 2010

Facebook login revisited - it's not system stupidity, it's system ignorance

This is a follow-up to my previous post on the topic, a post that referenced a number of other posts and comments. For example, here's a portion of the comment that I left at The Last Podcast:

Facebook, ReadWriteWeb, Google, and all of the rest of us are the stupid ones because we were unable to design an intuitive interface. Take a step back for a second. If you type “facebook login” into a box, SHOULDN’T our highly-vaunted technology be smart enough to log you into Facebook? So, who’s the stupid one here?

After taking some time to think about it, perhaps the word "stupid" isn't the best word to describe what is going on here. The best word is "ignorance."

But before I explain why, we're going to take a little trip into a fantasy world - a world in which I am incredibly wealthy. So wealthy that I feel so bad that Melinda Gates has to live on so little money. So wealthy that I can take my private 747 jet to a super-exclusive luxury resort on a super-exclusive Caribbean island. When I get to the super-exclusive quarters that have been assigned to me, I proceed direct to the third floor of the mansion, to the computer room, where there are three butlers waiting for me. Before entering the room, I peek at the three butlers that my immense wealth has allowed me to hire: a guy named Steve, who dances around the room until he hears me approaching; a guy named Paul, who is juggling a football, a basketball, and an umbrella; and a guy named Linus, who is holding a blanket and sucking his thumb.

(Sorry. Bad joke that I couldn't resist.)

As I enter the room, I clap my hands, and my three butlers immediately spring to attention.

"Gentlemen," I proclaim, "I want to play Starfleet Commander!"

After consulting with each other, the butlers decide that Paul should fulfill my whim. (If Louis were incredibly wealthy, Steve would have handled the task; if Jake were incredibly wealthy, the task would have fallen to Linus.) Paul goes to the deluxe computer in the room, types some stuff, and asks me a couple of questions:

"What's the e-mail address that you used to sign up to Facebook?"

"I promise I won't tell anyone, but what's your Facebook password?"

Based upon the six word command that I spoke, my human assistant Paul was able to deduce that what I really wanted to do was to login to my Facebook account, then select the Starfleet Commander application. (For the purpose of this example, assume that you have to use Facebook to access Starfleet Commander.) I just spoke the six words, and it was done.

Compare that to how I access Starfleet Commander today. Trust me, it ain't as simple as speaking six words. Now if I'm using a browser that I've used previously, I can often access the application just by typing the word "apps" and waiting for the URL to appear. However, you may have noticed that in my fantasy example above, I had gone to a computer that I had never used before. In a case like this, more than likely I would do the following:
  1. Start up the computer and hope that I don't have to enter a Windows password that I don't know.

  2. Start up a web browser - hopefully, a familiar web browser will appear on the desktop.

  3. Go to, and hope that I remember what e-mail address and password I used for Facebook.

  4. Check this week's version of the Facebook UI to see where Starfleet Commander is now located.

  5. Click on the link for the Starfleet Commander application.
Now the steps that I listed above are presumably familiar to many of the people who read this blog post. But the fact remains that to many people - call them stupid, call them inexperienced, call them people with a life - the steps above are complete gibberish.

Is it any wonder that people end up going to a web browser and typing in "facebook login" because all of this "url" (does that rhyme with "earl"?) and "browser" stuff is not only confusing, but also completely useless.

Why is it useless? Because if all I want to do is login to Facebook or play Starfleet Commander, I shouldn't have to jump through a half dozen different hoops to do so.

Now you and I know that the task can be made much easier by putting a shortcut on a desktop - but try to explain to someone how to put a shortcut on a desktop.

Computers are supposed to perform routine tasks for us so that we can get to the important stuff, like playing Starfleet Commander. But, if you think about the example above, computers are NOT performing these routine tasks for us.

Why not? Because they're ignorant. You can't talk to a computer in the same way that you can talk to a human being, like my dream butler Paul.

And yes, I know that there are packages that allow you to speak to your computer, or to your phone, but these applications are very limited in their understanding. I can turn to my co-worker Matt and say, "I'll call Bruno and ask him about the picture." I cannot turn to my Motorola Q phone and say, "Hey, I wanna call Bruno now." The computer (or, in this case, the phone) is unable to comprehend the full richness of the English language, and convert my verbal ramblings into a task that it can complete.

We encounter these limitations every day of our lives. We need to tell a computer or a phone to do something, and we have to go through strange gyrations to get it to do what it wants. And yes, they're very strange gyrations. Would you speak to your spouse or your child in the same way that you'd speak to your search engine? I sincerely hope not.

This is the challenge that developers face. Even if the developers are working on an enterprise application that will presumably be used by people with a minimum level of computer knowledge, the truth is that the members of the target audience have wildly varying levels of computer skills, and that a good percentage of people - even in an enterprise environment - may be completely puzzled by terms such as "application."

Or "folder" or "directory."

Or even "login."
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