Archive for April 9th, 2010


Upgraded Software, Downgraded Minds

   Posted by: Michael Bernier   in Today's Reality, Yesterday's Memories

When it comes to computer software, I suppose I’m a little behind the times. Like a lot of PC users I have Microsoft Office software to take care of all my writing, spreadsheet, presentation, and e-mail needs; in fact, I use it to write and proof all of my blog entries before posting them. Where I’m behind is with the version I’m using – Office 2003. It’s already one release older the rest of the world (Office 2007) and soon will be two releases back (when Office 2010 arrives later this year).

Is being behind the times always a bad thing? I don’t think so. Neither does my employer; we’ve only recently been given approval to upgrade our office computers from Office 2003 to 2007. One of the reasons is that Office 2007 has a significantly different look, and would require a lot of people to go through expensive retraining to learn how to use it. I often enjoy being on the “bleeding edge” of technology, but having to relearn how to use something I already know how to use doesn’t make sense. I’ll have to upgrade it eventually to keep up with the rest of my office, so I’ll have to learn to use it eventually as well.

There’s another element that comes into play here, at least for me: the old adage “if it isn’t broke, don’t fix it.” For years, the old version (and even the one before it) worked perfectly fine for 99% of the tasks that make up my job. Most of the documents I write or spreadsheets I create aren’t going to dramatically change just because the software I use in creating them looks different. Some of the new features may turn out to be useful, but for the most part I’ll still be churning out the same-looking stuff. Why? Well, that’s what I get paid to do.

Also along with each new upgrade, it seems that designers are moving more toward the use of icons and symbols and farther away from actual words; Office 2007, for example, uses icons and symbols in the place of worded menus. For someone who has made a living designing complex business applications and writing the instruction manuals for using them, the use of icons is a mind-numbing shift in thinking. They also don’t make the writer’s job any simpler; instructional materials are much more elaborate now, adding pictures of each icon or symbol and describing what happens when you click on them. “Type ‘start’ at the prompt and press the Enter key” has been replaced with “Double-click on the square-looking thingy with the red and yellow stripes.” Who could have guessed when PCs were invented thirty years ago that we would go back to using hieroglyphics like the ancient Egyptians?

Don’t get me wrong – I’m not saying all icons are bad. They do have their uses. My kids learned how to start up a drawing program and how to shut down a computer by using icons long before they knew how to read or write. But, I also made sure they understood what the computer was doing “behind the scenes” each time they pointed and clicked on something. I’m sure there are some adults who don’t understand what they’re doing when they use a computer, and probably never will.

But, they do know how to double-click on that square-looking thingy.