Posted by Brian @ 10:48 am on April 6th 2008

Accidental Configuration Syndrome

“Accidental Configuration Syndrome” (ACS) is what I’m calling the act of repeatedly and accidentally altering the configuration of an application and/or operating system. ACS leads to unnecessary confusion, frustration, and technical support calls. ACS primarily afflicts older people or those with average or less than average mouse and keyboard manipulation skills.

I’ve been providing technical support for my Dad and in-laws’ desktop Linux machines for years now. Linux on the desktop is an excellent fit for them, but they all suffer from ACS.

Just yesterday I restored OpenOffice’s primary toolbars on my father’s machine. These toolbars are his primary interface to OpenOffice – they’re critical tools, and to him they just went missing one day. Of course he had accidentally dragged them off of the primary interface, but I found that this is surprisingly easy to do. Try it; start OpenOffice and aim just two pixels below File on the primary File – Edit – View interface. Hold down the left mouse button and drag down as you might expect to do if the File menu were to appear. Did you just pull the main toolbar off of the interface? I did. Now try and put the toolbar back without screwing things up. I wasn’t able to, and it took me a few minutes to get it back to “normal.” Should the default action of a click and drag be to remove the toolbar? No. Should a mistake in a common usage action (pulling down the FIle menu) cause a major configuration action? Of course not.

Another example — at my in-laws, the main application bar in Gnome seems (to them) to change in mysterious ways. Application launch icons move around, appear and disappear without any apparent reason. What’s happening is that instead of left clicking to start an application, they accidentally right-click and select move, or accidentally click and drag. Once the damage is done, there is no easy way for them to set it right, because they weren’t intentionally making the change – they literally don’t know what they’ve done. Similarly, their desktop is periodically littered with multiple launch icons for solitaire in a failed attempt to simply start the program, again, a right-click presented a configuration option and literally in the blink of an eye they accidentally make a configuration change. To them it appears as if the program simply didn’t start – they don’t notice the new icon on the desktop.

Configuration states should also not be activated by keystrokes – the chance for ACS here is just as great.

The fix for all of this is simple, and it has nothing to do with educating people using computers. This is a user interface problem. We need to build applications and operating systems that assume people will primarily be using them instead of configuring them, and require explicit, deliberate action from a person to enable any configuration changes. Use, not configuration, must be the default state.

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