Tool Time

Hercules' fight with the Nemean lion, by Peter Paul Rubens
Hercules' fight with the Nemean lion, by Peter Paul Rubens

I like to tinker. Perhaps it is a suppressed longing to be a UI developer, perhaps it is because my father wouldn’t let me play with Lego as a child (n.b.: this is only a rhetorical device. My father not only let me play with Lego but spent hours helping me to build and learn). Whatever the cause, when I need to decompress after a long day, I like tweaking elements of my site and generally faffing with technology.

Yet for all my ardent love of tinkering, I do like it when things just work. Banging my head against a wall of code only to find that hours of toil have produced nothing more then ‘Hello, World!’ ceased to be a joy at the end of the last century when I built my first website. Today, I want to invest my energies changing the drapes, not in getting the frame of the house built.

This saw me switch back to WordPress last year after much platform hopping. It is also why, when I see commentators leaving the IndieWeb project, I am not overly surprised as too many ‘how to’ articles begin with ‘setup is simple’ and then proceed with several pages of command line instructions which invariably assume a level of knowledge more appropriate for a server admin than keen end user. And while ‘learn to code’ may be a satisfying riposte for irritable programmers, it is not a response that endears laypeople struggling to engage to take up the cause of the IndieWeb, FOSS or other community driven projects.

This is what sees so many people abjure privacy friendly, and arguably more sustainable solutions, for services like Gmail and Facebook because they require negligible setup time and only ask for unfettered access to your digital life. A seemingly small price to pay for many who just want to get up and running in a few clicks and then on with their online life.

Yet there are a growing number of privacy friendly options that are providing ‘one click’ solutions and personalized services. As I have listed several in a number previous articles, and with PrivacyTools and Restore Privacy offering a fabulous array of reviews and recommendations, I won’t rehash the list here. Instead I will close with a philosophical cri du coeur.

If pouring your heart and soul into a project, particularly if you are the lead engineer or perhaps sole developer, consider the usability case for people whose idea of a ‘complex setup’ is entering their details into a wizard. Consider that a UI should assume the user doesn’t have a high level of software experience, nor is willing to learn how to use the command line to undertake some level of personalisation. Assume your user was born after, or at least started using computers after, the invention of GUIs and would like to click to navigate; if your solution can only work through terminal commands and needs pages of configuration instructions to use, you’ve lost the bulk of the computer using population.

Ultimately, keep at the forefront of your mind why people use products or services: because they remove a pain point. Electric ovens took off because they are so much easier to use than a wood fired stove. They enable people to spend more time cooking and less time stoking the source of heat. The same goes for digital services. Once the ratio of time to maintain exceeds time to use, people will likely drop it for a less time intensive service. And if time / effort to install is greater than a competing product, chances are people will vote with their digital feet and walk on by.

Goodnight and good luck.

The Infant Hercules and the Standard Oil Serpents by Frank Arthur Nankivell (1869–1959) is licensed under Public Domain.