February 3, 2006 • Vol.28 Issue 5
Page(s) 25 in print issue
Application developers are a proud bunch. Like proud parents, they’re convinced that their latest creation is the solution to the world’s problems—or at least deserves as much attention.
Perhaps this is why their applications are so intrusive. Like a noisy kid in the booth next to you at the family restaurant, these applications often announce themselves with 12 bars of music or a trumpeting that would make Gabriel take notice.
Take Microsoft Money, for example: When it starts, it announces to everyone in the county that it’s arrived. You would have thought the president had just stepped to the podium at the nominating convention. If you try to figure out how to disable that six bars of trumpeting and enter “disable sound” or just “sound” in the Money help index, it has no suggestions on how to muffle this exuberance. Yes, eventually I found a Program Settings option that let me disable the sounds, but it was an all-or-nothing deal, so I had to dig into the Control Panel list of registered sounds and find the startup noise (or something like that) and set it to None. What a pain.
The issue here? I’m of the opinion that application sounds should be far less intrusive if enabled by default. This means very low in volume and a second or less in duration. It’s surprising how attuned we are to tiny sounds; it does not take much to get a user’s attention. Although sound reinforcements can help productivity, they do not need to be blurted out for “non-events” such as application launch or tear-down.
I can (almost) understand the Windows Startup sound as a way to verify that the sound system is working, but there is no excuse for the shutdown sound—it’s just intrusive and adds to the time it takes to shut down my laptop. If the application wants my attention for something serious that it can’t deal with on its own, then fine, play an appropriate tone or better yet, something specific to the issue. If it’s important enough to disturb my work, then it should be a special (short) tone. Anything gratuitous is just arrogant.
It’s Not Just Sound Arrogance
Ah, and what’s with the applications that have to regularly update themselves but have to tell you they’re doing their job? Sure, some utilities have to download new virus and adware signatures and software patches to correct some weakness or another. That I understand. What I don’t understand is why they have to expose a dialog to tell me that they are doing their job, a job I’m paying them to do.
Norton Antivirus is a prime example. Ever since I installed it, I’ve been rudely interrupted with one dialog after another asking me if I want to block this or that. How ordinary people know what to accept or block is beyond me, but what makes me want to uninstall it (and I’m about to) is the intrusive dialog that’s displayed as it’s doing its periodic updates. If I hire someone to do something, I want him to do it quickly, quietly, and efficiently—not report every few minutes on the progress or how well he did it. To make matters worse, when Norton finishes its Live Update, it forces me to immediately reboot. Any attempt to disarm this shutdown sequence has resulted in lost work. Now that’s arrogant.
Windows Update sometimes needs an update, but it lets me finish what I’m doing before reminding me that I still need to reboot. It does keep putting up that irritating dialog (and stealing the focus) to remind me over, and over, and over . . . but I do have a choice and a chance to clean up the system, so it can restart.
Applications—Member Of A Team
Applications need to be written as if they were simply a member of a team that has to work together for the user and not the one and only application running on the system. Most of us multitask and have many applications working in parallel. It’s arrogant for applications to assume that they can display dialogs, pop them to the top of the Z-order, and grab focus when the issue is not of critical importance. This irritates the heck out of users, as it should.
Suppose you’re right in the middle of an important customer call and some junior assistant bursts into the room; interrupts your concentration; grabs the phone, mouse, and keyboard; and glues a 5 x 7 memo on your computer screen and doesn’t leave the room until you’ve acknowledged it. How long would that person be working for you? If it’s your spouse’s cousin, you might overlook the issue, but if it’s a utility application, your next call might be to IT support to have it removed. Having the programmer at fault report to your desk front and center might be in order, just so you could explain his or her role in the organization.