Writings on technology and society from Wellington, New Zealand

Thursday, July 26, 2007

How to support your own computer

Today on Radio New Zealand National I talked about supporting your own computer. A little time invested up front can save you a great deal of bafflement and frustration. And, when choosing a computer, consider ease of use!

Q: Colin Jackson joins us now. He’s our resident technology guide. Colin, computers. Why do so many people find it hard to keep them running?

A: It’s odd when you come to think about it, isn’t it? Computers are more hassle to keep working than a car, say, and vastly more than a fridge or a piano.

Q: Why is that?

A: Because they are designed to be general-purpose, flexible machines. A car pretty much just does one thing. It’s very complex under the bonnet, but all that equipment is focused on letting the car move itself from place to place – and it needs the full time attention of a person just to achieve that! We expect our computers to do all manner of things from writing email to keeping photographs to making movies, and its no wonder that there is a lot of complexity around that.

There’s also the problem that the computer relies on software – computer programs – to do its job; and that programs are generally not written by the people who make the machines. So, your computer will have a whole bunch of programs on it, probably written by different people with different ideas on how you might want to use the programs, who are in turn different from the people who wrote the operating system you use (probably Windows) and all different again from the people who made the machine. So its not surprising that things can get a little confusing.

Part of the problem is what is called the mental model of what’s going on. The person who writes a piece of software has a mental model of what it does and how it does it. That person often describes the program in terms of metaphors like the desktop, tools and files. The program may or may not work as the designer intended, and of course it contains assumptions about how the computer and operating system work which could be right or wrong.

But the person who is using the program has yet another mental model of what is going on. They don’t necessarily understand the metaphor that the program’s author was using, and they don’t know everything the designer intended the program to do.

There’s been some great work done on this. A man named Donald Norman, who has degrees in engineering and psychology, wrote a book called The Psychology of Everyday things. It’s in the links for today’s program. He railed against poor design of everything from coffee pots to car door handles. One of the examples he gave in the book was of a fridge – simple enough, you’d think – how could a fridge be hard to use? The one Norman showed had a single control knob, like most of them do – marked from “low” to “high”. Which way do I turn that to make my fridge colder? Does low mean lower temperature, or does it mean that the fridge motor is turned down so it will be warmer inside? That’s an example of what was in the designer’s mind not being what’s in the user’s mind. And if a simple single purpose device like a fridge can be that hard, imagine the opportunities for confusion with a general purpose device like a computer with lots of different software on it!

Q: But what are we to do about all this complexity? Most of us aren’t technical experts after all!

A: There are lots of things you can do yourself to control all this. But first, I want to dispel a myth – so-called technical experts can get just as puzzled as everyone else. There’s a great quote from Ken Olsen, who was then the head of a big computer company called Digital, saying that he couldn’t figure out how to heat his coffee in the microwave.

But getting to some practical advice for those of us who are sometimes surprised by the actions of our computers.

The first and most important thing is to keep your machine clear of viruses and other nasties. If you are using Microsoft Windows, you need extra security software – at minimum, a firewall, virus checker and a spyware detector. Often these are all in the same program. And these programs have a subscription component to them, unfortunately you need to keep paying an amount to keep them up to date, because they work by looking out for known nasties on the Net and, sadly, people keep coming up with new nasties.

Q: You said to do this for Windows – what about Macs or Linux machines – is it only Windows that is susceptible to these kind of things?

A: Historically Windows has been far more vulnerable because of its design. That has improved, but because Windows is by far and away the most popular operating system most of the nasties are targeted at it. There are in theory bad things that can happen to Macs but they just don’t, partly because the Mac operating system design makes it harder but mainly I suspect because the percentage of Macs out there is still relatively small.

Anyway, it’s very important to keep a suite of up to date security software running. I’ve linked a page on the Netsafe site – Netsafe is a New Zealand NGO which exists to help people keep safe on the internet.

Q: So we are running our security software. What else should we be looking out for?

A: Run Firefox. It’s a lot safer than the web browser built into Windows.

Q: OK, that’s Firefox web browser. What else?

A: It’s a good idea to try to understand a bit about how your computer’s operating system and your favourite programs are designed, at least the names they use of different things. So, for instance, the row of buttons near the top of a Microsoft Word window is called a Toolbar, and Word actually has about a dozen of them of which about 2 are generally visible at any one time. Occasionally Word hides them for you or they get lost some other way – and if you don’t know how, it can take a lot of time to get them back. But my point is – learn what the program designer calls things, because you can then use the menus or the help system to figure out how to get them visible.

So, when you get a new program or a new computer, spend a little time looking into the menus and just getting the feel for what is there. Be a little curious. You are much better off finding out a bit about the program even if it takes you half an hour or so than you are tearing your hair out later when you are halfway through writing your novel and you can’t figure out how to save it.

Q: What about when you get strange error messages in a little box with “OK” next to it?

A: Yes, just an OK button is a bit irritating. It generally isn’t OK but you have to push the button because it won’t let you do anything else. We used to call those a “Russian election” because back in the Soviet days, there was only one candidate. Anyway, you can do what I always do when faced with a message I don’t understand – feed it straight to Google.

Q: How do you do that?

A: If the computer won’t let you Copy and Paste it – and for some reason they often don’t, retype it exactly into a Google search box. This next bit is important – put quotes around the error message, single or double quotes, doesn’t matter, which tells Google to look for that message exactly, not just pages with some of the same words in. And you can also put, after the quotes, the name of the program you were using at the time.

What is likely to happen next is that Google gives you a page full of hits all from people who have had that problem and have fixed it, and what they did. It’s a great example of the so-called “wisdom of crowds”, one of the effects that makes the Internet so powerful.

Q: What if that doesn’t solve it?

A: You are probably going to need assistance, and you might have to pay for that. If you have a new computer or a new piece of software you might well have free telephone support – check with the packaging. If not, there are businesses out there which will help. I have linked one called Geeks on Wheels in the resources, they are in Auckland and Wellington. I have never used them myself, but they have some testimonials on their site. Using the Yellow Pages and looking for Computer Support would probably find lots more. If Mac users need support, they should try iFix, and they should definitely sign up for the Mac tips at the, a fine resource run by Wellington writer Miraz Jordan.

Q: Are some types of computers and programs easier to use than others?

A: Both Microsoft and Apple spend a lot of money on usability testing – they put random people in a room with a brand X computer, ask them to do something simple and watch them. Apple make a particular theme of the usability of their Macintosh computers, and Apple publishes a usability guide that they try to get all the program writers to use so a lot of the programs do tend to work in the same way. Incidentally, they got Donald Norman, the engineering psychologist I mentioned earlier, to help them with it.


Donald Norman, and a summary of his most famous book The Psychology of Everyday Things.

The Net Basics – information you need to keep yourself and your computer safe on the Internet, part of Netsafe.

Firefox, a safer web browser.

For Windows users, the magnificently-named Geeks on Wheels, a mobile computer support company. If Mac users need hands-on support, try iFix. And Mac users should sign up for the wonderful tip resource run by Wellington writer Miraz Jordan at

posted by colin at 12:20 pm  

1 Comment

  1. For an oldie like me this is great.
    The ability to enlarge the print is wonderful.
    Keep up the good work. I have hooked you to my tool bar & will be back often as the old Necktop doesn’t retain like it once did.

    Comment by Lena Harrison — 20 September 2007 @ 2:33 pm

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