Wizards are for power users

I’ve never met Joe Sixpack, but I keep hearing about him in “Linux isn’t ready for the desktop” rants. Apparently, Joe Sixpack never has to ask for help with Windows. He can do everything he wants without asking for help, because Windows has GUI (graphical user interface) for all the common tasks. Poor desktop Linux. Desktop Linux can’t help Joe Sixpack out, because there are some things in desktop Linux that Joe might need to use the terminal for. If only desktop Linux had GUI frontends for everything, then Joe Sixpack (who really knows only how to check his email, listen to music, surf the web, and type a Word document) would download and burn an .ISO, back up his Windows installation, repartition his hard drive, install Linux, and then troubleshoot hardware incompatibility problems.

I haven’t met this mythical Joe Sixpack. I have met plenty of everyday Windows users I’ll call Jordan Memorizer, though.

Jordan Memorizer has to ask for help. That’s the bottom line. It doesn’t matter that Jordan has used Windows for years, even decades. Nothing is intuitive, even if it involves a mouse and clicking. I encounter Jordan Memorizer at work all the time and have done so at the last three jobs I’ve had in schools. Jordan Memorizer memorizes steps, writes them down, needs constant reminders of how to repeat the steps.

How do I know this? Because I’ve had a lot of Jordan Memorizers ask me how to do a mail merge. Dude, there’s a mail merge wizard in Word. Just follow the prompts. It walks you through step by step. Do you want a label, letter, envelope, email? What list do you want to merge? What merge fields do you want to insert? Want a preview of your merge? Want to complete the merge? The wizard practically does everything for you.

And yet Jordan Memorizer needs to write down where to click and what to click next. Eventually, Jordan will have it all memorized. I know Joe Sixpack wouldn’t have had any trouble with figuring out the mail merge. After all, there’s a GUI for it. I just haven’t met any Sixpacks. The Beerguts I know are Memorizers or Figureouters. And the Memorizers are just as lost on a wizard as some of the Figureouters are with a command-line.

Wizards aren’t for Memorizers. Wizards are for power users—the Figureouters.

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  1. Heh, as a professional Figureouter (by your definition) the wizards definitely are how I’ve largely come to learn the command line. I use command line controls for most of my work developing on the Microsoft platform only because over the years I’ve reverse-engineered the process in my mind and was able to figure out what the GUI was doing for me. I hadn’t really thought about it until I started learning Ruby and using NetBeans. I liked the wizard interface for managing Rake tasks and gems but quickly saw that they were just mapping to command line interfaces. I think that a solid, consistent wizard transparently automating a command line interface can be an immediate route to productivity and a long-term tool for learning the underlying commands themselves.

  2. Damn straight! As a long-time Windows power-User, and somewhat recent Ubuntu convert, I must say that even Joe Sixpack/Jordan Memorizer can almost use Ubuntu, AS IT CURRENTLY STANDS, given someone to install/configure (stupid driver troubles) it for him. Heck, now with Wubi even that got a ton easier. Case in point: a friend of mine was tired of his Windows XP install running slower than molasses because of viruses. He asked me for help, but the system was so slow (2 minutes of swapping to open the start menu), that I told him a reinstall would be his best option at this point. He didn’t have his XP install disk, and didn’t want to wait to get a replacement, so I mentioned I could install Ubuntu in the meantime. It’s been several months, and other than some help with ALSA not using his headphone jack, he’s been able to satisfy Jordan Memorizer’s needs perfectly well, and with no viruses. He’s even starting to memorize *ahem* some terminal commands.

  3. Most of my favorite linux GUI applications are little more than front ends to console commands. K3b (not really a wizard, but still my favorite cd burning app) is a great example of that. At least when I last used it heavily, it was clearly a nice interface to cdrecord. I’m pretty sure it even logged its cdrecord calls.

    The great thing about that is that you can learn what the application is doing and extend it with a little command-line savvy. Plus, as long as the interface is stable, the guts of the program are often long tested, stable terminal apps. It makes the whole application more reliable and, in my opinion, less baffling.

    Granted, a bad UI will make a baffling application on any platform. But I think that when your GUI model primarily involves putting buttons on a console app, you’re starting off with an advantage.

  4. I think whether GUI or CLI, if the end user knows the basic concepts, he can survive.

    Anybody can memorize commands as well as GUI options. But I don’t think the issue is the interface. It is (as in most things in life) between the two ears.

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