Macintosh Usability Notes -- Training My Father to Use His Laptop



February 25, 2008

Well, it has been about 19 years since my dad really used a computer at all. At that time it was a cutting edge XT or something like that, and he used it to type up and arrange chords/lyrics on his song books. He was reasonably good at that time, but that was before mice were standard on anything but a Mac. All one needed at that time was a greenish screen, a keyboard and a really fast 2400 baud modem and you'd be set (with the noisy CPU there of course). So last month he bought himself a 2nd hand Mac laptop so that he could have the tools he would need to start publishing to the web. The following are notes on usability that I took while I was training him this past weekend.

MacOSX does function differently than Windows Vista, but it is way different than DOS which is the only other interface he'd really used. After posting this, a friend pointed out the Mac 101 page, hopefully it will be useful for others. The keyboard mouse was pretty useless, but fortunately he had a swanky glowing 3 button mouse with a scroll wheel that did the trick. With many folks, it really doesn't matter how many features there are on the mouse, they only use the left button. The scroll wheel definitely helped to deal with the limitation of the widow size (limited screen and limitless window).

I am really not sure how many keyboard shortcuts will be useful on a regular basis. I've been using Apple(Ctrl)-A All, Apple(Ctrl)-S Save, Apple(Ctrl)-Z Undo, Apple(Ctrl)-X Cut, Apple(Ctrl)-C Copy, & Apple(Ctrl)-V Paste since 1989 when I bought my MacClassic. In any case, fortunately those ideas are still relevant and learnable since they are pretty universal and clumped in together.

It was interesting watching someone struggling with the idea of windows and that there is more information available than what fits in the current screen. We all learned at some stage to scroll up/down (or perhaps even left/right) when we see the scroll bars and look for these almost by instinct now. But we all had to learn to do that. Being comfortable enough with the tools to use trial and error to figure out what you need to know to accomplish your goals.

What is the active window, and how to you shuffle between the different applications, documents, and other layers that you are presented with? If you can see two, which one is active and how do you do something to change the order and bring one to the top. If you've been doing it forever, it is just so obvious. Just like radio buttons vs submit buttons, why is generally that you have to both click on one and then confirm that choice by hitting submit.

The distinction between browsers and Internet was neat too, although this is certainly something I've seen other folks struggle with. So many people think of Internet Explorer as opening the Internet, and don't realize that this is just a window into the Internet. Fortunately he was starting with Safari, and finally Firefox.

Understanding how to name files, where they are, and how to find them is also a step that people need to learn strategies for. How do you manage versions of documents and when is it right to delete the documents you aren't using. We didn't cover how to create a folder, but there is only so much time in a weekend. Knowing that a grayed out file name usually just means that it has a file extension that are not open-able from the application in question. However, in this case it was being interpreted as not being there (since my dad didn't have any other tools at his disposal to get to them).

This is all groundwork knowledge which is useful before starting to do anything on the Internet. The next post will cover notes on getting him to be a prolific blogger.

About The Author

Mike Gifford is the founder of OpenConcept Consulting Inc, which he started in 1999. Since then, he has been particularly active in developing and extending open source content management systems to allow people to get closer to their content. Before starting OpenConcept, Mike had worked for a number of national NGOs including Oxfam Canada and Friends of the Earth.