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Bug of the moment 2007-11-02

The issue of user stupidity is a somewhat contentious area in IT. It’s not a single, neatly-wrapped problem that we can blame solely and squarely on common human fail. Sometimes, the software really is the problem.

Take Windows Character Map. Aside from its obvious flaws such as missing a great many useful characters and its fantastic window drawing bugs, it has a much more subtle problem. Imagine you want to call up the trademark symbol “™” (which is a nuisance in Windows, while Mac users simply hit option-shift-2).

The first step is to open Character Map, and set it to advanced view:

At the bottom, you will find a handy-dandy search box, so type in “trademark” and press enter:

Now, notice that the window’s default button (with the black outline) is still Select at this point; Character Map simply ignores this and hits the button you wanted instead of the one it’s indicating.

Searching for “trademark” beeps, and returns nothing, as you can see:

This is OK – clearly it is not listed under that name. (Whether it should consider synonyms and alternative spellings, is another matter entirely.) Select, of course, is still the default button.

Maybe Character Map has “™” down under “trade mark” instead: let’s backspace out a few letters to leave just “trade”:

Now, press enter:

This is where you need to be on your toes. The human brain is a very forgiving machine, highly adaptive and highly fault-tolerant. This is why a human being is still so far in advance of a computer. When you’re performing a low-difficulty task, with your brain on auto-pilot, you’re relying on subconscious adaptive behaviour.

The results of the above “search” were in effect designed to trip up the subconscious and distracted mind. The program beeps as if in failure, the search term is cleared, and the program does not show any matches. When not paying attention, this registers in my brain at least as “search failed; please try again”.

It took some experimenting before I realised the problem: after performing a search, the Search button changes to a Reset button. All fresh input to the search box is thrown away and the master character map is returned. The result of typing into the search box and pressing enter has completely changed in a way that you’re unlikely to notice and never going to predict (never mind the fact that the default button is still Select). The most obvious key to reset the display is escape, which should be tied its own button in the window.

Maybe this is user error: a case of PEBKAC, but to me, the idea that you have to first cancel an existing search – with the same key – to perform a new one seems odd. In a sense, Character Map is behaving just as though there were a modal dialog box on the screen telling you of a failed search, that must first be dismissed with enter. With Character Map, Microsoft have succeded in designing a modeless interface without any of the benefits of a modeless interface: effectively, a modal modeless interface. For that, I commend them on their originality.

Posted 2nd November 2007 – Comments and questions?