Computer Users Are Mad As Hell

Readers the world over say high-tech designers better get customer-friendly fast

The flood of messages started as soon as my Sept. 28 column, "A Computer User's Manifesto," hit the streets. I knew that IBM researcher Clare-Marie Karat's proposed User's Bill of Rights would be provocative, but I wasn't ready for the hundreds of thoughtful replies that rolled in. I thank you, and I apologize for being able to reply to only a very few of you.

The responses aren't anything close to a scientific sample, but they are enough to convince me that the computer industry has a lot of baffled, frustrated, and unhappy customers. That is a much graver threat to the long-term health of the high-tech sector than the Asian crisis, the Year 2000 bug, or just about anything else.

Of course, some industry folks took exception to the proposal. The Bill's first article--"The user is always right"--drew much ire from software developers. The pros say that much of the time, users don't know what they want, and when they do, they all want something different. And they won't read manuals or learn about programs.

HOMEWORK. "The fact is, most users rarely are right," wrote Paul Roger of San Diego. "It shouldn't take a PhD to understand that a few hours invested in learning about the computer and its software will make subsequent products intuitively usable." Jef Raskin, who designed the original Macintosh "desktop," doubts that it's possible to make computer use truly intuitive. "For example, the mouse was not intuitive. A person seeing one for the first time had no idea how to use it. Nonetheless, you could learn to use the mouse in seconds."

A good rejoinder comes from Bill Keller of Portage, Mich., who says he met with disbelief a year ago when he told fellow software developers "the customer is always right." They understood, though, when he said: "This is not a statement of fact.It's a point of view." Karat says: "The user is the customer. Let's delight the customers and not only be responsive to their needs but anticipate them in our designs." (For many more responses to the column, see

A number of readers took me to task for saying computers should be as easy to use as toasters, pointing out that a toaster is only expected to do one simple chore. A car, as many suggested, is a much better analogy. Everyone understands that you can't drive a car without some training, but few drivers have trouble using cars.

Would that the same were true for computers. Tales of woe came from around the world. Fran Darling of Duncan, B.C., complained: "If this industry is making billions of dollars and has had so long to work out bugs and has so many brilliant people designing programs, how come I can't [get my computer to] send and receive a fax?" Kate Kettle of Montclair, N.J., spent hours being shuttled among four companies in an effort to get a Hewlett-Packard Co. printer to work with her Toshiba laptop.

Error messages--particularly the common, cryptic Windows warning that a program has performed an "illegal operation"--are a source of outrage. "My machine sometimes makes me think I'm an idiot!" complains Dunja Vrazic-Stejskal of Zagreb, Croatia.

BILL-BASHING. Microsoft Corp. is clearly the company its customers love to hate. "The No.1 offender is Microsoft," writes Rick Cunnington of Chandler, Ariz. "The leader in indecipherable error messages (that pop up all too frequently), junk software, poor compatibility, and blaming anybody and everybody else." Olaf Edstrom of Paris says his Internet service provider told him to talk to Microsoft about a known bug, but the company demanded the equivalent of $50 just to put a technician on the line.

Apple Computer Inc. gets singled out for praise by its customers. "If Apple had won the PC wars, there is no doubt they would have continued down the path of making the computer an appliance," says Andy Hsiung of Santa Monica, Calif. "Instead, 10 years later, the Windows system we're all using barely approaches the Macintosh in terms of ease of use."

There's one thing missing from this outpouring. I've heard from engineers, programmers, and usability gurus. But the product planners and marketers who make the key hardware and software design decisions have been conspicuously silent. You folks have a lot of angry customers out there. How are you going to respond?

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.