Reading Usable Help
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Gordon R. Meyer
If computers had warning lights
Why the Check Engine Light Must Be Banned, at Jalopnik, argues that automobiles should be more informative about their error conditions. The problem, they say, is that the light provides no detail at all, it simply tells you that something is wrong and you should have the car checked.
What if computers worked the same way as cars do today? Instead of horribly obtuse and technical error dialogs, you'd just be told to take your computer to the Genius Bar or Best Buy (heaven help you). I have to admit, I like that idea a lot. Imagine a world where you are never subjected to messages about things you can neither fix nor act upon. No more mindlessly clicking OK. If computers only alerted you to fatal conditions, it would completely change the computing experience.
(Creative Commons screenshot from Flickr user Sandy Kemsley)
I know that's the opposite of Jalopnik's argument. But really, unless you're a gear head, most of the error messages your car would show you are going to be as scary and unfathomable as those that you get from your computer. The only problem with the Check Engine light as I see it is that there's no clear sense of urgency about the condition. For example, I once I had Geo Tracker. The instant the odometer rolled over to 50,000 miles, the Check Engine light turned on. Nothing was wrong, it just needed a milestone checkup. That damn light scared the heck out of me when it illuminated (for the first time ever since I bought the car) during a snowy rush hour drive on the Tri-State Tollway. I was quite irritated to later find out why it came on when I took it to the mechanic.
Back in the day, Macintosh provided for different types of alert messages. Alerts that were informational featured a speech bubble, while more important errors had a bomb. Today, desktop computers more often exclaim urgency and demand attention for the tiniest of matters.
(Lovingly designed by Susan Kare.)
So it's probably unlikely that we'd collectively have the discipline to only turn the Check Engine light on when it really mattered. But as computers become more like appliances, I can dream.