Taking Care of the User

Warning, I'm about to rant here. I'm all worked up and I need to vent. The reason? The subject
of taking care of users who do not have the technical capacity to use a computer. In general,
software is intended to take a complicated task and make it as simple to perform for the user
as possible. I try to do that with my software. In fact, I like to think that there is
an unwritten contract between software developers like myself and computer software users. Here
are some of the items I imagine on that contract.

[1] The developer will not unnecessarily burden the user with confirmation dialogs.
Everyone has seen these, and largely ignores them after seeing them once. These are the
"Are you sure?" dialogs that you get whenever you try to logout, close an application, overwrite
a document, or do any other task that might have "destructive" consequences. Too often software
over-uses these boxes to the point of user frustration. Some software even goes to the extent
to doubt your judgement twice. In my opinion, if the user's judgement was fouled after the first
warning, it's not going to be any better after the second warning.

[2] Users will read the message boxes that developers display.
I'm constantly astounded by the number of times a user will run into a message box and rather than
actually read the message (which usually contains instructions on how to solve the issue) will
immediately run to the nearest "computer guy/gal" they know to ask for help. Messages like
"Are you sure you want to overwrite this file?". This isn't a hard decision. Either yes
you do or no you don't. Or how about the message "Your printer is out of paper". I'm begging
all of you users out there: please, please read the text on the screen. You may think you have
seen it all before, or that it is over your head, or that you don't have to read it. You would
be surprised at how many times a developer has gone to great length to provide instructions,
warnings, and information in that text that is actually useful. READ IT!!!

[3] Tasks that are simple without software cannot be made more simple with software.
This is aimed both at users and developers. If there is something that can be done easily without
a computer, don't look to a computer to make that task easier. A prime example of this can be found
in regard to televisions and television remotes. A very easy task to perform with your television
is to turn it on. Normally, there is a large button on the front of the set marked power. You
touch the button, the TV comes on. Touch it again, the TV goes off. A remote is software to help
you with this task. The idea is, make it easier to turn on your television. Now, you don't even
have to get out of your chair to hit that big button. But wait, what if we made remotes that worked
with more than just one television. What if they could work with your television AND your DVD player.
That would be wonderful, as it would make the task of hitting the big button on the front of the TV
and on the front of the DVD player easier. Right? Wrong!!! Now you have a universal remote with
multiple modes. You now must hit four buttons to get all of that equipment to turn on (usually
TV, then Power, then DVD, then Power again). Sure, my butt doesn't have to get out of the chair,
but now what happens if I start pressing buttons in the wrong mode? One time our dog stepped
on our universal remote and we couldn't get sound out of the TV for three hours. Software is just
an enormous universal remote for your computer. It can make doing some things convenient, but don't
try making things that are already easy any easier. You'll just foul things up. Users: don't ask
developers to make it easier either. Just be happy you know how to do what you want now.

[4] Users will know where they have saved/downloaded files.
This is a case where doing something simple has been made more simple, with devastating consequences.
Your file system is where you save files. Documents, spreadsheets, stuff you download... it all
gets saved somewhere on your file system. It used to be that every time you wanted to save something
you would need to create a folder for it and remember where you saved it. Now, this task has
been made easier by programs that "remember" where you saved things for you. Trouble is, what
if you want to do something with that file, but with a different piece of software. Gosh, I
don't know where it's saved. It could be anywhere! I just want to scream at people when they
ask for help with a file, and they can't answer the simple question of "where did you save it?"

[5] Developers will not encourage non-technical users to do technical things.
Think about your family for a second. There is probably at least one person in your family that
believes the computer is the solution to every problem. Not only that, but they encourage
everyone else in the family see things that way too. When they come to your house they
install bizarre add-ons and utilities on your computer, and leave you scratching your head
as to what that flashing icon is in the system tray. If you don't know anyone like that, you
probably are that person. If you are a technical person, enjoy the fact that you can get a
lot of utility out of your PC. But please, please don't put the rest of the people around you
through the torture of trying to learn this stuff. The vast majority of people in this world
are averse to change, and you are just stressing them out by trying to show them how to do
something they already know how to do. I know I'm personally guilty of this one. Everyone in
my family knows how to use a phone. You just pick up the handle and punch in the number to the
person you want to call. What do I do? I try to get everyone to use online instant messaging
and voice calls on the internet. Bad, bad, BAD! [slaps wrist]

[6] Users will have a clear idea of what they want to do before they start to do it.
This means, be prepared for questions pertaining to your task, and answer them.
Too often someone will have a vague idea of what they want to do, and get six or seven steps
deep into the process before they realize, "Oh My Gosh, this is not what I want!". Say like
when a user decides they want to format a word document, but starts the process to format the
hard drive. Hmmm... I guess my document is on the C: drive... AAAACKK!

These are just the items that came immediately to mind. I'm sure there are more. Are you a developer?
Do you have an idea for an addition to the list? Leave a comment and maybe I'll append it.
Are you a user? Fed up with something about your PC or software? Leave a comment with your
addition to the contract. I'd love to hear it.

Video Game Review : Metroid Prime Hunters

Tuesday was a good day for me. That's because I was able to pickup both
Tetris DS and Metroid Prime Hunters for my Nintendo DS. I'll talk about Tetris
DS in a different post, and focus on Metroid Prime Hunters here. I should tell
you to start that I am already a huge fan of the Metroid series, so my review
will be a bit biased.

As far as the story goes... I can't say much. I've played for a couple of
hours, and in true Metroid fashion the plot is slowly unrolling, but a lot
is still mysterious. You play as Samus Aran, the intergalactic bounty hunter
/ gun for hire. A telepathic message was received by both you and several
of the best bounty hunters in the galaxy. The message indicated that a great
power could be found in a particular solar system, so you and the other
hunters travel there in an attempt to be the first to capture that great

I was a little concerned when I saw sample screen shots of the game. The
Nintendo DS is a small, portable gaming system. It has two smallish ( but
very nice ) LCD screens. I've seen other games attempt to render a 3D
first person shooter (FPS) display [Ghost Recon] and it was.... well.. poor.
The screen and graphics capabilities of the DS are just not suited to heavy
duty 3D gaming. So I had a uneasy feeling that the graphics in Hunters
would be disappointing. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the game
designers did a fantastic job creating environments that display well. The
environments render quickly and getting a sense of direction is not a
problem. There are some areas where it can be confusing to determine
which way to go, but generally rooms are laid out simply, and the automap
is available to save you in a pinch. My biggest gripe so far is just that
the game is very dark. Most of the environments are dark, and if you are
playing in an area with overhead lights (as I do at lunch), it can be
difficult to see what is going on. I recommend finding a dim or dark room
to play in so that you can really see what is going on.

The truly innovative part of Hunters is the control scheme. The DS has
a touch sensitive screen, and that screen is utilized to control the direction
you look. I was apprehensive about this, as the demo video I saw showed folks
with contorted hands trying to hold the stylus and use the D-Pad at the same
time. That's how I started playing, and after about 20 minutes of play my
hands were hurting. It just wasn't comfortable. The alternative is to use
the A/B/X/Y buttons to control the look direction. I wasn't satisfied with
that either. When you using the touchpad for the look direction, it is a lot
like using a mouse on a PC. This is where nearly all console FPS games fall
down. Because consoles don't have a mouse, the speed you can change the
direction you are looking is limited. Rather than using a mouse to whip your
head around and get your bearings, you press left and wait for your character
to spin. The touchpad control gives back that mouse-like ability to quickly
take in the environment.

Fortunately, I've found a way to use the touchpad control without giving
myself carpal-tunnel. The trick is to ditch the stylus. The Nintendo DS
comes with both a stylus and what I call the "thumb-tac". It is a little
strap with a black plastic pellet you can loop around your thumb for
using the touch pad. It keeps you from getting your fingerprints on the
screen, and provides a nice round edge for contacting the touch sensitive
surface. Using this, my hand can rest in a much more natural position on the
game. My right thumb hovers over the touch screen while my left thumb can
handle the D-Pad for movement. Both index fingers comfortable reach the
shoulder buttons used for firing. Using this setup I've had a much better
experience. If you don't mind fingerprints on your screen, you can ditch
the thumb-tac entirely and just use your thumb, just make sure you don't have
any grit or long thumbnail that might scratch the screen.

I haven't played Hunters for long, but I can see that it follows the same
formula I've enjoyed in previous games. The new control scheme took a while
to get used to, but now I'm having fun with it. If you are a fan of the
Metroid series, and more specifically the Metroid Prime games, you might
like this one too.

Rainy Day

Today is one of my favorite kind of days to be at work. For those who don't live in the Hoosier state, we've been deluged by rain and storms over the past couple of days. Today is no exception, with high winds and rain beating against the window. The thermostat is in check such that, while it isn't cold, the office is nice and cool. I have my steaming mug of coffee next to me on my desk, and I have settled in to noodle out some difficult programming programs. Sure, I would rather be at home with the family or playing games, but I have no desire to be outside right now. Some folks have the opposite reaction to these types of days. The rain and gloomy weather get them into a funk. Not me. Today is a day where I can feel productive, hidden away from the nasty weather at my desk, settled into a cozy state with my coffee and my code.

UPDATE: It stopped raining mid-day, but the wind kept up. The sun was out, and it was nice to come home to Jenn and Corbin playing outside

Video Game Review - World of Warcraft (or "My first two weeks in Azeroth")

Massively Multiplayer Online Games, or MMOGs, are getting more and more attention these days. MMOGs are games where thousands and possibly millions of players can connect to a single game environment and interact with each other through their internet connected PCs. There are lots of MMOGs available today. To this point, I have avoided them due to the subscription fees and time investment necessary. Massively Multiplayer Online Role-Playing Games (MMORPG) are especially notorious for becoming incredibly addictive, and some over-zealous users have even played marathon sessions that have lead to their own deaths through malnutrition and neglect of the real world bodies. I'm not interested in becoming a hermit, nor am I interested in having my wallet drained monthly for a game, especially when most games I buy get about a month to two months of playtime before I have finished them.

World of Warcraft is a MMORPG. It is held to be possibly the best of the MMOGs available, and has even been rated Game of the Year by GameSpot, an online video game review site. World of Warcraft, or WoW for short, was created by Blizzard, the company already famous for the WarCraft and StarCraft series of real time strategy games, as well as the Diablo series of adventure / role playing games. I am huge fan of the Diablo series, and my friends and I would play for hours and hours, battling through hordes of evil meanies and leveling up our characters. It was great fun. World of WarCraft seemed like an extension of a lot of things I liked from the print reviews I had read. It had the role playing elements and action / adventure combination found in the Diablo games, but it was set in the very rich environment created through the WarCraft series of games. I was very interested, but still timid about committing to a montly payment to play this game.

Then something terrible happened. A coworker of mine gave me a free two-week trial to play. I was able to install and play the full game for two weeks. That was all it took. With a trial key, there were some limitations on my account. I could create as many characters as I liked on any of the servers (called realms), but my characters would be limited to reaching level 20, I would not be allowed to trade items with other players, I could not use the mail or the auction houses, and I could not carry more than 10 gold. The only one of those restrictions that really limited my play was the player trading. Although several helpful players were willing to give me new equipment, I couldn't accept it.

I talked to my buddies at work, and found that they were playing on the Malygos realm, so I created a character there. I chose to play a Human Male Palladin. There are eight races to choose from, with four races allocated to each side in the war (Alliance vs. Horde). The Alliance races are Human, Dwarf, Gnome, and Night Elf. The Horde races are Orc, Tauren, Troll, and Undead. You can choose to play as a male or female, and can customize the appearance of your character to your liking (or just hit randomize if you aren't too picky). You can also pick a class of character to play as, such as Warrior, Mage, Priest, or Rogue. The class you choose will determine what abilities and equipment are available to you throughout the game. Once those choices are taken care of, your new character is introduced to the world and ready to play.

The introduction to playing WoW couldn't be easier. You character is born into a region determined by your choice of race. You can chat with other players, or chat with one of the in-game characters to receive a quest. Quests give you a goal and help encourage you to explore new areas and meet new people. From what I hear from others, this is where WoW really excels beyond other MMORPGs. In most MMORPGs, you get into "grinding", where you feel that your tasks are monotonous and you don't have much fun as you just try to get that next level so you can complete the next quest. The quest system in WoW is paced very well, and the variety of tasks makes it feel a lot less like grinding, even if it is grinding. The maximum level for a character in the game is 60, which prevents anyone from getting so powerful that they can crush everyone and everything. Still, the game masters at Blizzard have done a good job of keeping things interesting for those who have reached the maximum level (so says my level 60 buddy).

In addition to the quest system, the world itself is amazingly rich and diverse. Traveling through the capital cities give just as much a sense of awe and wonder as traveling through some real life big cities. The attention to detail in the game is amazing. Each area has a unique feel, and a diverse set of creatures that inhabit them. The equipment that you can buy or receive through killing off enemies reflects in the appearance of your character. If you put on a red cape, your character displays a red cape in the game. If you wear chain mail arm, you hear the "chink-chink-chink" of the armor as you run around. There are an incredible number of items in the game, and more are added all the time. As you play, your able to really customize the appearance of your character to suit your own taste.

Probably the biggest draw of the game is the social aspect. This game is fun because you are sharing in the experience with your friends and making new friends to share experiences with. I have several friends at work that play, and it is nice to get online at night and spend an hour or more bashing monsters and just having a good time together. I've also met new people in game, and even received advice on how to get Jenn's heartburn to subside during pregnancy. The social aspect is so strong that servers are dedicate to those who wish to do their own role-playing, creating their own set of quests and making the world their own. Although I'm pretty sure there are more guys playing this game, it isn't a completely male dominated game. The player who gave me the heartburn advice told me that she and her husband enjoy playing online. They had two kids at home, and found that after they went to bed, jumping into WoW was a great way to unwind and have fun together.

Today is the last day of my two week trial. I've built my character up to level 17, which I think is pretty respectable for a two week effort. I've met several folks, and enjoyed time with existing friends. I've worked in groups to complete difficult tasks, and ventured out on my own to explore new areas. In short, I've had a blast playing WoW over the past two weeks. So much so that today I picked up a full copy. That gives me another 30 days of playtime, and removes all of the restrictions from my character. So if you are in Malygos and run into a character named Corbindallas, stop and chat with me for a while. I would love to hear from you.

Before I finish, I must say one last thing. My wife is an amazing woman. Right this minute she is up in bed trying to get comfortable to sleep for the night with a nearly full term baby in her belly. She is a wonderful mother and never ceases to amaze me with marathoner endurance and wonderful attitude. Jennifer, thank you for being such a wondeful mother, a loving wife, and for being understanding about my video gaming habit. And thank you for giving me the green light to subscribe to this game.

Jade Mason