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MathGroup Archive 1997

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Useful Dumb User Questions

  • To: mathgroup at smc.vnet.net
  • Subject: [mg8988] Useful Dumb User Questions
  • From: Mark Evans <evans at gte.net>
  • Date: Tue, 7 Oct 1997 03:35:34 -0400
  • Sender: owner-wri-mathgroup at wolfram.com

Hello,

This is a general message to the Mathematica wizards who populate the
newsgroup, and also to the beginners.

>From the various wizards of Mathematica, I see a certain amount of
condescension toward beginners who ask questions that seem silly --
broken syntax, awkward program flow, etc.  You supply answers, but
immediately talk about how wonderful life would be if the stumbling
beginner would only "get it" and conform to the syntax and rules of
Mathematica.  As in:

	Mathematica Was Designed for X, Not Y; or
	This Is the Way You Do It, Silly; or
	I Don't Understand Your Question Because It's Dumb.

I would like you to think about this idea for a moment:  perhaps
Mathematica should be changed to conform to what first-time users
expect!

When you pick up a hand calculator, you know immediately how to use it. 
The only issue is whether it is reverse Polish or plain input.  Once you
know that, you are essentially finished figuring out your calculator.

Wouldn't it be nice if Mathematica were that way?  Maybe these dumb user
questions are telling us something important about Mathematica --
namely, that it is overly complicated and hard to use...except for
computer science geeks like me who are willing to slave away at learning
new languages.

I consider myself an expert in Mathematica.  However I feel that many of
the dumb-user type questions are actually very intelligent.  Let me
offer some alternative responses corresponding to the three given above:

	Yeah, It Should Do Y, But At Least There's X; or
	That Would Be a Better Way, However The Answer Is; or
	Mathematica Is Too Dumb To Know What You Want Here.

I hope that you will take this comment as food for thought.  There may
be some clues about how to improve Mathematica in all these dumb-user
questions.

I certainly hope that nobody on the newsgroup suffers the illusion that
Mathematica has a reputation for ease of use.  It most definitely does
not.  We can talk all day long about how undeserved its reputation for
difficulty may be, but perhaps we should instead ponder the dumb-user
questions as hints about how to give the program the ease of use that it
presently lacks.

I recall reading that Microsoft has a policy of taking computer novices
off the street, sitting them down in front of Windows, and asking them
to perform certain tasks on the computer.  Microsoft monitors carefully
all the mistakes made by these novice users, in order to find out how
Windows could be made more intuitive.  That is the kind of analysis I am
calling for here.

Maybe such analysis is only appropriate for WRI personnel, but I think
the rest of us would do well to realize that this is a *really hard*
program to use well, unless you are a gifted programmer.  I also feel
that it is too easy for technical people to get smug about what they
know, when in fact life should be a whole lot easier for everyone, not
just the experts.  Among other things, Mathematica is still a
command-line-driven program in an age of graphical user interfaces. 
Palettes and the like are a helpful step.  I am just afraid that when
the publisher and the users get smug about their expertise and the
terrific design, the product is going to stagnate.

Best regards,

Mark Evans



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