I have never been able to verify its authenticity, but my favorite Dell tech support interaction goes something like this (circa 1990):
- Customer: I just set up my new PC, but the foot pedal is not working.
Tech support: The foot pedal?
Customer: Yeah, I keep stepping on it, but the computer won't turn on.
Tech support: Sir, the on/off switch is the orange button located in the middle of the front of the computer case. Try that.
Customer: Oh, okay (presses button). Yes, that worked. My computer is finally on, but now what do I do with the foot pedal.
- (After a few minutes, the tech support rep figured out that the customer had mistaken the mouse -- then a new PC accessory with the first pre-installed shipments of Windows-386 -- for a foot pedal.)
I recount this mix-up because most of my favorite software operates just as well with my mouse out of reach on the floor. Every required click is often a waste of time. It is so much easier for an experienced user to press a key or two (or even three or four) then to transition a hand from the keyboard to the mouse, line-up the pointer, and click away.
Still, almost 15 years after Windows usurped DOS as the primary PC OS, many software developers don't get it.
I love My Yahoo, I have it carefully customized, and (for the foreseeable future) it is my homepage. Yet I manually navigate to Google every time I want to do a web search (ALT-D, google, CTRL-enter is faster/easier than clicking in the My Yahoo search box). It baffles me that the Yahoo web developers haven't designed the My Yahoo page to load with the search box in focus. I wonder how many people with mouse allergies like mine use similar workarounds to avoid the extra clicks.
My Yahoo is just one example. What I'd really like to see is an evolution of web UI standards to facilitate better keyboard navigation. It is possible to tab through all the links on a page and navigate to the one in focus by pressing enter. But many pages have enough links to make tabbing impractical. I can think of a few potential solutions, but I'm hoping the clever Firefox UI designers (or plug-in authors) will come up with something great.
These little things really do matter. For example, I think Firefox's real "advantages" over IE are just an amalgamation of subtle usability improvements. Similarly, Skype's dominance of PC VoIP is driven by its slick software that gets every little feature just right. Getting the little things right often leads to fantastic user adoption.
But based on the rarity of truly elegant software UIs, sweating the small stuff is no easy task. I sure wish more developers did it well.