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Watching others play

I don’t know many other OS X users personally —hell, I don’t know too many Mac users personally— so seeing one in the wild is a unique experience for me.

It isn’t just a “Wow, another Mac zealot!” reaction (though that’s nice, in its own way), it’s the watching them do stuff that interests me; the voyeurism inherent in watching somebody else work with a system that you know in and out. It’s like watching another guitarist playing your Fender, or a driver gearing your Corolla and riding the clutch all afternoon; watching them play with their windows, their menus, their dock; seeing what keyboard shortcuts they know and use regularly, what problems they run into and how they go about solving them. It isn’t just voyeurism though, it’s user interface testing.

My case in point is one Callum Dent (not his real name): 15" PowerBook owner and Linguistics lecturer extraordinaire. He runs OS X 10.2, his default browser is Internet Explorer, he lectures with the aid of Microsoft PowerPoint slideshows and he likes to keep the whole MS Office suite in his dock. His desktop icons are unusually large (92 pixels, I kid you not) and he keeps them roughly organized on the left of his screen. Clearly not a man fitting the ‘power user’ profile.

Launching some browser windows from links in his PowerPoint presentation, Dent notices that the resize handle and scroll buttons have gone under the dock; inaccessible by mouse. He wants to scroll down the page, so what does he do? He hits Command–Option–D, a shortcut he has taken the time and effort to memorize, to hide the dock; giving him access to the window’s scroll buttons. He doesn’t drag the scroll bar, he doesn’t click the scroll track, he doesn’t even grab the title bar to drag the window out from under the dock; he hides the dock, using a keyboard command.

Remember: not a power user… obscure keyboard command. The man has memorized a three–button keyboard shortcut just to work around a flaw in the dock’s usability, and he doesn’t even know that ‘Cut’ and ‘Paste’ can be done with the keyboard. This is why real, human UI testing needs to be performed on any new piece of software, big or small. It’s often overlooked in the low–budget, independent–developer scene (and, evidently, the big–budget corporate scene too) and really needs to be brought back to the fore. Call your Grandma or something, seriously.