Keyboard shortcuts in Thunderbird, and the failures of visual metaphors

This is so great, I’m feeling all bouncy! There is a Thunderbird extension, Nostalgy, for using keyboard shortcuts to do everything. I was just feeling super pissy that this didn’t exist, and wishing someone would write it, because I hate mousing or trackpadding: it slows me down. If I’m just using typing shortcuts, then I can get the feel of the commands in my fingers, like playing piano or Nethack, and I don’t have to think about what to do. So, now I’m super happy that it *does* exist (thanks to Oblomovka for the link). You can get the latest version here and in fact there are instructions on how to update directly from svn for the latest bug fixes.

Meanwhile, I’m really enjoying yubnub and its keystroke commands. I don’t have to do any slow mousing that requires hand-eye coordination, or extra shoulder/wrist movements that flare up old RSI problems. Instead I am training my fingers to go “apple-K wp” if I want to search Wikipedia. It becomes automatic, and I don’t have to think about it. I can do it with my eyes closed, lightning fast.

I look forward to getting back into that mode for email! I like Thunderbird, but I miss Pine because of the speed and efficiency of keyboard shortcuts.

This was something we talked about during She’s Geeky, at Beth Kanter and Elizabeth Perry‘s session on non-profits. Someone mentioned that very small technological interventions can make huge changes in a whole organization.

I found this to be true at the businesses, schools, and universities where I did tech support and training. Training classes were useful, but the best way to help a person work with their computer was to watch them work for even a few minutes, and then teach them at least one way to improve their basic workflow. A few simple tricks made people more confident and productive and happy. Those tricks would then spread throughout an organization. Sometimes, this is as simple as teaching a person that in menus, the underlined letter or the keys next to the command are keyboard shortcuts that they can learn. Or, a small trick like using tabs in a web browser can help people enormously. Many people, especially baby boomers, don’t feel comfortable with basic navigation on a computer desktop, no matter what system they’re on. The concepts that go along with productivity tricks can also help people’s understanding of what they’re doing on a computer, so they feel less like they’re flailing and instead, have constructed a mental map or geography of what’s happening.

It is amazing, but most people who use computers every day at work and at home still don’t have basic concepts down. It is like they have their eyes shut, and are trying to walk around their house by counting the number of steps to go in each direction, and they’re never sure which direction they’re pointing until they hit a wall. But most computer classes are procedural. You end up with a step by step list of what to do to produce a result, but with no understanding of what just happened.

Do you need to know those basic concepts? Or is it like driving a car — you can be a good driver, without knowing what a carburetor is? To some extent, it is more and more like driving a car. We don’t need to know anything about bits and bytes and how computers work at a low level. But we *do* need to know what wheels and brakes are. The mental model that we hold is in our physical memory. We turn the steering wheel, the wheels shift, we can picture the wheels shifting, and then the car physically turns. To be a good end user of computer applications, I think that people need to create a similar mental geography. Maps and diagrams and metaphors can really help with that.

So here is my list of things to teach people who use computers a lot, but who are flailing.

Keyboard shortcuts:

- open, close, minimize a window or tab
- open, close, minimize an application
- find, select, copy, paste
- my tabs, let me show you them
- switch between applications or windows
- search (a folder or hard drive)

Concepts:

- The difference between closing and minimizing.
- Noticing, or how to tell, if an application is already open
- You can keep many applications open at once
- Recent history, recently opened documents or apps

Geography:

- where is stuff on your hard drive
- what is a hard drive? what servers are you using? what does that mean?
- files and folders and network places; draw diagrams

Often, I’d start out trying to help someone with a complex issue, like teaching them how to do a mail merge, or fiddle around with a FoxPro or Filemaker database, and I’d end up going back to square one to teach them some of these concepts.

As I ponder this I think of a counterexample to the “mental map / diagram” idea I’m suggesting. Years ago, my otherwise pretty awesome boss at a K-12 school wanted me to create a particular thing that I loathed on instinct. Any of you who have been web developers will know what I mean! The year, 1996; the thing, a web site that was all a visual metaphor. The home page for the school web site would be a picture of a classroom-ish-office, or an office-ish-classroom, and all the things you might want to do on the website would link from pictures, like if you wanted to send email there would be a little mailbox, or to look at the cafeteria menu, click on the apple on the teacher’s desk. If you wanted to look up some document or form, click on the filing cabinet.

Number one, this would have been dog slow in the early web, on the LC-II Macs we had in most classrooms, and for people at home who only had dialup. Number two, the idea that the happy shiny pictures would not scare off the little kids who couldn’t read yet was just dumb, because one layer past the main page and you’d get to text. It is no good to click a 10-pixel-wide image of a phone book, if what you get is then… a phone book! Which if you’re 5, you probably can’t read and don’t want to use anyway. But number three, the whole idea of this visual metaphor sucked. We have invented words, and language, for a good goddamned reason and that is because it rocks! It’s efficient and powerful. If I want to look up what an apple is, in an encyclopedia, I don’t want to be floating in cyberspace and vaguely “clicking” through a 3-D taxonomy of shapes until I narrow it down to red round-ish blobs. We have words, and indexes, and alphabetical order, and search algorithms, and the convention of hierarchical menus of things-one-can-do-on-web-sites, to help us. We have the ability to group words tightly, to cluster them, in ways that makes sense for words but not for images. I don’t want to have to click on visual images one by one to figure out where to find the staff directory. I can scan a page of text very quickly to find that. Even much the most basic international symbols meant to bridge across cultures and languages are not obvious, and must be learned in context!

Possibly this is a bad story to tell because the end of the story is that when they did not listen to my objections, I mulishly ignored and resisted the Classroom Visual Home Page and instead just went off and made a plain, kick-ass, really slick and clean, page that did everything they really wanted and not what was coming out of their mouths, and that fit the specifications for dialup and legacy computers. And they used it for the next eight years. Which, while I am proud of it, maybe shows a bit too much about what it is like to have me work for you. You can’t always get what you want, but you get what you need.

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