Techno-File: Deconstructing the Latest and the Greatest

The universal desktop may be the next big thing, but is it easy to use?

Despite all the icons, toolbars, and pop-up menus in software today, we waste a staggering amount of time trying to figure out how to get our applications to give us what we need. Graphical user interfaces (GUIs) represent progress over yesterday's command-line interfaces, but even state-of-the-art Windows and Macintosh desktops can leave us wondering which radio button or pull-down menu to click next. The consequence, according to software designer and author Alan Cooper, is that our skill level for most applications stays "perpetually intermediate," because we haven't learned or have already forgotten key capabilities in complex applications.

Microsoft and Netscape, the two companies that have the greatest influence over what most of us see on our screens, both claim they have part of the answer to the ease-of-use problem. With Microsoft's Office 97 and Netscape's Constellation, the two companies are touting a GUI refinement known generically as the universal desktop or the custom workspace. The underlying principle is a subtle but sensible-sounding variation on traditional GUI design. Instead of displaying icons that represent word-processing or spreadsheet applications, for example, the universal desktop displays icons for individual files.

Though the ability to create custom icons for individual files has been possible for a long time, the universal desktop makes it easier to do so. What's more, you can create icons for files regardless of their location--whether on your hard drive, a network server, or the Internet. This means that when you click on an icon labeled "sales report," that specific file opens up, not the home screen of your spreadsheet application. The advertised benefit: you can access your work more directly, instead of having to spend time opening various applications and then searching for the files within them.

But will the refinements represented by the universal desktop make computers significantly easier to use? Don't count on it. Part of the trouble is that the universal-desktop design doesn't go far enough. For most of us, the main obstacle to using complex software efficiently isn't finding files or calling up programs. The real trouble begins once we open a file and are assaulted by a maze of icons, toolbars, and nested menus. The almost endless choices make no attempt at prioritizing tasks: routine selections, like "File Open" and "File Save," are visually no more compelling than rarely used commands, like changing the size of indents or inserting a table. Cooper blames the culture of software engineering for this complexity. Instead of making prominent icons for only the most common tasks, programmers create selections for every contingency. "Engineers deal with what's possible, while most users only want to deal with what's probable," Cooper says.

What can you do to make software saner? You get one vote, and you cast it with your checkbook. The next time you evaluate new versions of business software, spend a little less time marveling over the laundry list of new features that seem impressive but that you may never use, and spend a little more time checking out how easy the applications are to learn and use. Ease of use translates into less training time and more productivity for you and your staff, which in turn can have a significant impact on the bottom line.

Alan Joch ( is a freelance writer who specializes in technology.