Across the Computer Divide, The Nerds Face the Dummies
By Steve Lohr
The New York Times
June 6, 1993
"DOS for Dummies," a how-to guide for using the software that runs most personal computers, seems to violate a time-honored tenet of business: never insult the customer.
Several publishers rejected the book, and once it was published leading bookstore chains initially declined to stock it. The first printing was a cautious 7,500 copies, and expectations were modest.
"I had doubts about it myself," recalled Patrick J. McGovern, chairman of the International Data Group, a big publisher of computer books and magazines, which in November 1991 took a chance on a title that dared to call its readers dummies.
A Runaway Success
Eighteen months later, "DOS for Dummies" has sold 1.3 million copies, a pace usually associated with big-name authors or provocative subjects, and no slowdown is in sight. More than a publishing phenomenon, "Dummies" is a sign of the times. Price wars have created a mass market for personal computers, yet they remain maddening machines, difficult to use and humbling to encounter -- and that's the empathic insight behind the success of "DOS for Dummies," an irreverent primer for the perplexed.
A personal computer, it seems, can make just about anyone feel like an idiot. And as the machines get faster, lighter and cheaper, computers are moving beyond the office into the home and onto the road, where men and women must face them alone. What is shaping up is one of humanity's most vexing confrontations with technology since a cave dweller first singed his hands on fire.
Elites and the Mass Market
Culture, as well as technology, is to blame for computing's complexity. It still has the hallmarks of an industry dominated by technological elites.
To read a computer manual is to decipher the foreign language of the "C prompt," the "user interface" and the dreaded "disk error." The writers are apparently paid by the word. Today's slender notebook computers are probably the only product category for which the operating manual is bigger than the product.
In the computer industry, every company claims these days to kneel before the altar of the customer. No computer executive seems able to string together three sentences without proclaiming his company "customer driven" or "customer focused."
Yet despite such talk, the computer business is still hooked on technology, pursuing the latest widgetry with abandon, convinced that customers will always follow. It is, after all, one of the few multibillion-dollar industries -- and perhaps the only legal one -- that routinely refers to its customers as "users."
Dan Gookin, 32, the author of "DOS for Dummies" and a self-confessed computer nerd, insists that personal computers are needlessly difficult to use. And he believes he knows why.
"The biggest problem is that there's still a lot of dorks in computing," Mr. Gookin said. "They're the kind of people who were in chess club in high school -- real bright but wound up in their self-centered little technical world, and they can't communicate with other people."
Experts Are Sympathetic
A harsh judgment, perhaps, but many computer executives acknowledge their shortcomings in dealing with laypeople. The experts are also sympathetic to the troubles of computer neophytes, for they often have difficulties of their own with new machines.
So, many computer companies are beginning at last to try to make their wares less intimidating, inspired by the lodestone of the consumer mass market and its promise of riches.
Already the rewards are evident at Apple Computer Inc., a company that built its reputation on the claim that its machines were easier to use than computers run on DOS. The company's Apple and Macintosh computers were the first to display pictures and icons on the screen instead of pure computerspeak.
Still, they must be a struggle for some people. "Mac for Dummies," by David Pogue, is also in bookstores.
Demystifying the Machine
In the rush to make computers understandable, some companies have taken small but helpful steps. After polling customers, Zenith Data Systems sliced in half the manuals for a new line of personal computers. "We went and trimmed out a lot of technical material that was of marginal value or that people absolutely don't want to know," said Brian Manser, manager of product strategy for Zenith Data Systems. In the name of making computers less forbidding, industry giants like the International Business Machines Corporation and the Microsoft Corporation operate full-fledged research programs, staffed by teams of psychologists, graphic designers and learning experts.
Mary Dieli is the manager of what Microsoft calls its "usability" department. Microsoft makes both DOS (Disk Operating System) and Windows, a software program that sits on top of DOS, translating arcane commands into pictures and icons. Ms. Dieli's staff of 20 runs two laboratories where volunteers are asked to putter with computers while they are being observed through one-way mirrors.
Ms. Dieli sees herself as a customers' advocate. "The developers at Microsoft live, eat and breath computers," she said. "But most people who use them don't, and don't want to."
When customers call Microsoft, unable to figure out something about, say, a word-processing or a spreadsheet program, the usability experts are summoned. They observe ordinary people using the offending software and they suggest changes.
A common fix-it is to add what is known as a dialogue box to subsequent versions of the software. These boxes take the computer novice through the tricky parts of an operation by providing step-by-step instructions on the screen at the stroke of a "help" key.
"The improvements aren't home runs," Ms. Dieli said. "They're base hits."
10 Million Users, No Training
At I.B.M.'s Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Yorktown Heights, N.Y., however, the researchers are swinging for the fence. Some of what they are working on was on display in Spain last year at the six-month world's fair in Seville. The $15 million system included 231 computer kiosks, used without training by nearly 10 million people.
"It was a huge laboratory for us to find out how people use our technology," said Stephen Boies, who headed the project.
At the prototype system in Seville, people could make restaurant reservations or see and listen to information about the climate, foods and culture of the 150 nations with exhibits at the exposition, all by running a finger over a touch-sensitive computer screen.
The kiosks were also fitted with speaker phones and video cameras that let people send voice messages and images to friends and family elsewhere on the sprawling grounds. The messages would be received at a distant computer kiosk, with recipients identified by their ticket, which was magnetically coded like a bank card. Using the same technology, the Illinois Department of Employment Security will test this year an I.B.M. system that allows people not only to process their unemployment claims themselves but to tap into a vast listing of job openings and job-seeking help.
The Palm-Sized Future
One company exploring the frontier of easy-to-use computers is General Magic Inc., a Silicon Valley start-up. It is working on the technology that will make the palm-sized, wireless computers of the future effortless to use by today's standards, responding to handwritten or even spoken commands.
Backed by six computer and communications powerhouses -- Apple Computer, Sony, Motorola, A.T.& T., Matsushita and Philips -- General Magic is pursuing an ambitious, seductive vision of computing's future.
Marc Porat, General Magic's chief executive, says his company's guiding principle is that "technology should never damage a person's self-esteem."
That cultural watershed, however, appears to be years away.
"I don't see the struggle with technology going away," said Mr. Gookin, the "Dummies" author. And for the next few years, his plans are set: "More books for more dummies."