6 Jan 2003 jfleck   » (Master)

I'll call it "the Fritz problem".

At least once a week, my friend and co-worker Fritz comes over to my desk, sheepishly, to ask for my help with a computer problem.

Fritz is in his 60s, and is a very talented journalist. He's been writing as long as I've been alive, and when he's on his game he has a deft touch with language, scene and setting that I envy. He's a ranch boy, grew up in a small community on the northeastern plains of New Mexico, which means he also has a sensibility that we city kids lack. I say this by way of explaining that he is important and valuable in ways that should be nurtured and encouraged.

For writing stories at the newspaper at which I work, we use a venerable old word processor called Xywrite. We started using the DOS-based version a decade ago, and smartly stayed with it. It has the virtue of using ASCII as its standard data storage format, and it is profoundly customizable. Our systems team and technology editor long ago customized it in very precise ways to manage our copy flow and it continues to work flawlessly. It lacks all the featuritus that has crept up on the word processing world, but if what you want to do is type and store words, it's a champ.

Fritz has mastered Xywrite, not with any enthusiasm but with enough doggedness to allow him to write his stories for the newspaper. But invariably the computer flummoxes him. He has a very simple task he wants to do - write stories. The computer has extraordinarily complicated capabilities. He needs none of them. But despite his best efforts, the unneeded, unwanted complexity constantly assaults Fritz. Some unexpected key combination or mouse click intended to offer some complex function to a power user, leaves Fritz unable to do the simple thing. It places the computer in what is, from Fritz's point of view, and unusable state - the window he needs minimized in some way he doesn't understand, perhaps, the file sent to some place he doesn't understand. Solving the problem requires knowledge of the computer itself, not the task Fritz is trying to solve.

Like the example I diarized a few days ago involving the timer on the stove, this is a clear example of a case in which the computer has made the job at hand harder, not easier. The timer example was just a minor annoyance, but the Fritz problem is serious, because this makes Fritz feel stupid. That is wrong. I keep trying to explain to him that the people who wrote the software are stupid, but he doesn't believe me.

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