During a recent very difficult time, I was once again given cause to wonder what software designers think they are doing.
The situation was that I had e-mail that I needed to take home and edit and, as I usually do, I exported the messages I needed from Microsoft Outlook at work in the form of an Outlook PST folder. I saved the folder onto a flash disk and took it home where I expected to import the messages into my Outlook Express mail client and do the edits I needed.
That should have been easy but I had overlooked the fact that, in the interim, my computer had been upgraded to Windows 7 and also that, in the process, my copy of Outlook Express had been deleted and replaced with its successor, Windows Live Mail.
Which, it turned out, cannot import Outlook files. Why on earth would someone remove a useful feature when upgrading a program? I’m darned if I know.
I was desperate because I needed to do the work, and then get back to town to be available for a call we were expecting from the hospital. My first thought was to find a copy of Outlook Express on the Internet and install it, but all I could find were links to Microsoft’s website where, predictably enough, it was no longer available.
I then remembered that the open source Mozilla Thunderbird mail client can import Outlook messages. I downloaded and installed a copy to find that it can only import Outlook messages if Outlook is installed on your computer. Well duh!! If it was installed already, I wouldn’t have needed Thunderbird.
In the nick of time, and just before I totally lost it, I remembered that I had been sent a beta-test version of the Microsoft Office 10 office suite which is due to be launched later this year. I thought that it might possibly have a usable version of Outlook included with it, so I installed it and, as it happened, it did eventually do the trick.
Trouble was that I couldn’t immediately get it to import the Outlook folder that I had brought from work. I have been fiddling with Windows programs ever since the days of Windows 3.1 but this program had not followed the usual interface conventions that have been built up.
Double-clicking the folder I wanted to import produced the message that it could only be opened from inside Outlook and provoked the anguished cry, "why the hell not?”
As an aside, I believe there is a definite case for the inclusion of a "why the hell not?” button in every dialogue box which pops up to tell you that a program either can’t or won’t do what you want it to do. A button which, when clicked, would deliver a painful jolt of electricity to the soft parts of the software designers, showing them where they need to improve their product.
My next move was to look for an import feature under either the File or Tools menus where you’d normally find it but, thanks to the program’s ribbon interface, there are no menus left. I did eventually find how to import messages after consulting Help, but it’s my feeling that a person of my experience should not have needed to look in Help to find out how to do a task that I have successfully done in many different programs over the years.
I must say that I hate Microsoft’s ribbon interface with a passion and have done so ever since I first saw it appear in Office 2007. The command structure for Windows programs has been used so extensively that, surely to goodness, when considering such radical changes to long-established usage conventions, the developers should have built in a facility for users to switch back to the classic interface.
It is clear to me that some software developers are pretty much divorced from the real world of users and it is my feeling that they really need to show any changes they want to make to their programs to their grannies, their aunties, or indeed any authoritative figure who would not be shy to tell them how foolish they are being.
The thing about grannies, by the way, holds good for any technological field that you can think of. They should be the ones designing user interfaces for mobile phones and video recording machines, for example. At least we’d be able to get them to work.
After a lot of time and unnecessary anguish, I did finally get my work done and delivered at 2am in the morning. And the phone call did come later that day…