Understanding why Windows doesn’t make sense.

And why it actually does, eventually.

About 10 years ago I got a call from my mom.

Mom: “Brandon, I need your help. Your brother played a trick on me and now I can’t do anything on my computer.”

Me: “What do you mean you can’t do anything?”

Mom: “The place where the programs go is gone.”

I thought for a moment. She meant the task bar.

Me: “Is there a thin line at the bottom of the screen?”

Mom: (Checks) “Yes.”

Me: “Put your mouse pointer over that line. Click and pull it up.”

Mom: “Thank you! I was so worried I wouldn’t be able to do any work.”

My Mom isn’t dumb when it comes to computers. She is an expert using a word processor and designing documents. She can type a million words per minute, and back before Windows became useful, she used Wordperfect for DOS and had a portrait-oriented monitor and people paid her good money to type in and format documents and she knew five thousand different keyboard shortcuts for doing anything without a mouse.

But when she was new to Windows 95, she was a victim of “mouse twitching” – she accidentally hid the task bar in Windows 95 just by moving the mouse the wrong way with the button held down. Suddenly, her computer was completely useless and she had to make a long distance call to Hawaii to ask someone who might know how to fix it what to do. All because somebody thought it would be cool to let a user hide away their task bar just by clicking on it and dragging it down a few pixels.

The Old New Thing: Practical Development Throughout the Evolution of Windows, by Raymond Chen, chronicles these sorts of usability discoveries during the many years of Windows development at Microsoft. He also talks about why Windows is designed the way it is, from the inside-out. If you’re a developer, like me, who has to design software that people interact with, and frequently curse oddities in the Windows API, this book is something you should read. He explains why you have to click Start to turn off your computer, what a dumb idea it was to ask a user if they want to keep a “newer file” when installing a driver (even I never knew how to answer that one)… stuff like that. It belongs on your shelf next to Joel on Software.

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