Andy Rooney Is a Usability Genius

Tuesday, March 29th, 2011

Andy Rooney, on computers:

On the one hand, it’s easy to dismiss Rooney here as a Grandpa Simpson–like parody of himself. “Geez, that old guy doesn’t understand computers at all, I’m so glad I’m young and hip, yadda yadda”. On the other hand, Rooney identifies some pretty frustrating UX failures — particularly in Windows. Again though, the age of this segment makes it easy to dismiss Rooney’s complaints as irrelevant. “Who still uses Windows 98? Get a Mac, ya old fogey.”

If you really think about it though, there’s something much more interesting here. Rooney talks for a while about his typewriter, grousing about how his computer is much more difficult to use (although he does seem to appreciate the power of word processing). As a computer person, I found myself pondering this question: why can’t a computer be as simple to use as a typewriter?

The typewriter, while wonderfully simple in terms of its interaction model (press key, letter appears on paper) is woefully prone to all sorts of maddening failures. Good luck trying to replace a ribbon, or dealing with broken rollers, or jammed keys, or any of the other numerous mechanical gotchas afflicting typewriters. And don’t even think about backing up your documents (unless happen to have a ditto machine handy).

Unlike a typewriter, which is all hardware, a modern computer is defined mostly by its software. There’s no physical or virtual limitation that forces my computer to be so much more confounding than a typewriter. In fact, if anything a computer should be easier to use, given the myriad benefits of digital file storage (perfect, cheap, instant copies, etc.).

Luckily, it seems the computer industry has already begun to climb aboard this train of thought, especially a certain fruit-themed company out here on the West Coast. This is what iPad is really about: building a better typewriter. I’ll bet Andy Rooney would love an iPad.