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The Human Reflex

Next time you go to a restaurant, let your friends choose where they want to sit. Chances are that they will prefer the chair with the back to a wall – an ancient reflex from the time our ancestors lived in caves and gathered around the fire.

Such habits can sometimes get in our way. Most people today are aware of the environment. But do you turn the shower off when soaping your body? And do you wash cutlery and crockery in a still water basin or under running water? Oh, sure the dishwasher…

The preference for running water is another ancient reflex. In nature still water is more likely to be contaminated. In a modern household this reflex is an obstacle to environmental-conscious behavior and requires an extra effort to be overridden.

Nature does not like voids. When new areas open to human endeavor, new reflexes are not far away. To my parents’ generation, a mouse is first of all a furry rodent. My kids will most likely think of a computer input device first.

Reflexes are an efficiency mechanism of the mind. They reduce the effort required to deal with a recurring task. They work well in most situations, but on a few occasions they yield false positives. Once instilled, they are difficult to override.

Each person develops her own reflexes. Reflexes come in clusters as people subject to similar experiences tend to develop related reflexes. Once formed, it takes a lot of energy to override a reflex. Think of a Briton driving on continental Europe, or an American driving in the United Kingdom. There is no right or wrong side of the road to drive: there are only local standards. And there are reflexes developed by people growing up with them.

Replacing a reflex is an even more complex process. Left to nature, reflexes change over generations and the change is hardly predictable. To intentionally influence such a process requires a concerted effort with plenty of resources, persistence, and leadership. Canada has tried to adopt the metric system since 1970, but to these days when I talk with my Canadian father-in-law or when I go to the local Home Depot, I’m confronted to a confusing mix up of imperial and metric units.

The three ways to deal with reflexes

  • Advocate a change and hope for the best
  • Impose a change
  • Adapt and design for the existing reflexes

Advocation is utopia and not always successful. Awareness campaigns advocate careful usage of water, but at the end of the line the user will choose the path of least resistance.

Imposition is harsh and not always possible. Governments can curb waste of water with imposed regulations, higher prices and penalties; and monopolists can sometimes impose a change too. But given an alternative, most users will take it.

Adaptation is the most elegant and efficient solution. Nobody had to advocate or impose dishwasher adoption to me. The beauty of the dishwasher is that it fits in well with existing reflexes. Sure, it has plenty of other positives features too, but the killer feature is that I don’t have to change my lazy habits.


Every product cycle introduces changes. The successful designers are careful to understand the interaction of their changed products with existing reflexes. They spend millions on usability labs to learn from the user’s interaction with their products. They consciously focus on incremental changes adapted to existing reflexes. And they carefully gauge how many radical changes they can introduce before the reflex becomes an obstacle to their product’s popularity. This is even more true for software, with its faster product cycles and ease of change.

New car models come out every year with incremental improvements. But fundamentally cars have not changed in the past 30 years: sit at the steering wheel of any rental car at any airport of the world and most reflexes learned at home still apply. There has been occasional eccentrics, like the Citröen 2CV with its stick shift out of the dashboard; but most car manufacturers adapt to what has established itself as a standard.

Before trying to change my reflexes I will look hard for a device compatible with them. Ah, the dishwasher… if only there was a mainstream shower device capable of such water efficiency.

And software?

The majority of current users have developed reflexes with market leading software from the recent past. Reflexes are a legacy that must be taken into account if the software is to become widely adopted. Like any legacy, it often means constrains and painful compromises.

Current web user reflexes were developed on Netscape Navigator; office workers developed their reflexes over the past twenty years mostly on Microsoft Office; graphic designers on Adobe Photoshop.

To compete in those areas, a software package needs first mimic the behavior of the (old) market leader. Even if it means making painful compromises. The first goal is to achieve acceptance and market share, not to lead the pack into a new, revolutionary direction. No user will ditch the comfort of his habits without a very compelling reason. It’s too easy (and efficient) to lazily stick with the existing reflexes and legacy software. Press the big button on the dishwasher.

Only after critical mass is established can a software project start to exercise some careful leadership. The radical change envisioned by the project’s founder becomes the vision toward which the software evolves over time. However the pace of software evolution needs to be carefully synchronized to the much slower pace of habits evolution. Do it too fast and the users will refuse to follow. Witness Windows Vista.

In the browser wars of the nineties, Microsoft first adapted to the existing reflexes and copied leader Netscape Navigator. It has taken a number of interactions (and the compelling power of a monopolist) to first “encourage” users to adopt Internet Explorer, and then lead them to change habits. Not necessarly toward good new habits. HTML email anyone?

It works the other way too: OpenOffice adapted to existing reflexes of office workers. Sure, it is a Microsoft Office look-alike, but it has achieved the critical mass and can slowly but surely start to change the paradigm.

Only a package with critical mass has the clout to influence the direction of change, and even the nine hundred pound gorillas have limits: move forward at a too reckless pace and the magic breaks, leaving users behind with their old habits.

My desktop

As a user turned off by Microsoft, I am looking for a change. Not everything that is done on the other side of the divide is bad, and I am not willing nor able to ditch all of my reflexes. I have reported to the Gnome usability list two habits that are too much change for me: the way Gnome deals with timestamps when copying files, and the way it deals with thumbnails.

Gnome users have their reflexes too, and unsurprisingly many of them are different from Windows reflexes. The first, understandable reaction was evangelizing. After all, I am the one coming to Gnome, so it is natural that I should convert to Gnome reflexes. And there are plenty of them that I am interested to adopt.

The people who answered me on the Gnome usability list are fundamentally right. Gnome is a desktop built on top of Linux. And Linux was built from the ground up to share resources between multiple accounts logged in simultaneously. Each user needs an account to log in to the machine and has access only to those resources that an almighty administrator allocates to him. That’s perfect for the data center, and unsurprisingly Linux commands a high market share there, where virtual users happily coexist. Linux works very well there, in an admin-centric system.

The P in PC stands for Personal. It’s a person using the resources, not a virtual user. And that person has natural reflexes. The continued success of Windows on the desktop is that it was born as, and still fundamentally is, a single-user concept. After all, sharing the same keyboard and display simultaneously is not very practical, and sharing them over time is easier on the basis of personal trust, not of system accounts. System accounts can’t replace personal trust, and I’d rather trust the person currently sitting in front of the PC, than some almighty and distant administrator. That is: if the person sitting in front of the PC trust the administrator, I can trust him as well.

From one answer I got, it seems that a person using Gnome is expected to know which account is logged in. And to know and trust the almighty root account. It has gone so far, that the account has replaced the physical user:

If someone inserts removable media into the machine while I’m logged in, it’s their problem that they didn’t check to see who was logged in.

The natural human reflex is that the person sitting in front of the PC is the current user. The natural human reflex is not to care about such an abstract concept as a login. It seems that a Gnome user is not a person, it is a login! And that the highest objective is to simplify administrator’s life. My proposal was trading off user convenience vs. administrator convenience and has been dismissed as administrative nightmare.

In my opinion a desktop should be uncompromisingly user-centric, not admin-centric. Anything else is useless for a desktop. It seems that not many share this view on the Gnome usability list – or at least they are not vocal about it.

Conclusions (for now)

I am back with the dishwasher. Windows (not Vista) works for me. It will keep working for another few years until Microsoft pulls the plug, forcing users to upgrade to Vista (or beyond). That gives me a few more years to look for alternatives. I will keep dual booting into Ubuntu, promoting the water-efficient shower. And I may bite the Apple – I was a happy OS6 and OS7 user back in university – but that’s another story.

3 Responses

  1. Copying without keeping date information is clearly wrong, and part of the reason this stuff isn’t done yet is that the Linux GUI file managers don’t get as much attention as they could.

    ..but the whole thumbnail thing has been tried in every which way with all the various Linux image browsers and ‘thumbnails distributed in the filesystem’ failed in practice, it simply doesn’t work – as I’m reminded very time I try browsing the London file server using Windows Explorer when in the office. This is very much a case of trying everything and ending up with the right solution.

    One-user, one-computer, one-desktop doesn’t reflect the reality here – I work on five computers on a regular basis and just about everything I create is going to be shared with other people – In fact I can’t really think of anything I’m ever going to create that isn’t intended to be shared in some way, can you? A secret diary maybe?

  2. @Bruno: Thanks for your comments. It looks to me as if the GUI thing is deeper rooted. Every single comment to the Gnome usability list is met with resistance, some people don’t even try to understand the different view that mainstream users have.

    As far as sharing goes, files, printers and other resources are indeed shared nowadays – via file servers, print servers and so on docked to personal devices such as laptops and smartphones that hide the complexity from the user.

    The issue with your connection to London looks like a network speed issue to me and not a thumbnails location issue. It may justify temporary caching of network files – irrespective of whether they are thumbnails or actual images. Of course network caching comes with its own set of privacy issues to be solved.

    The sharing of the information created is a matter of time. Sooner or later it all becomes public, irrelevant, or both. There are some short lived situation (such as the time between the photo shooting of a new product and its launch) in which there is a justifiable interest to keep information secret.

    I had an interesting related experience more than two decades ago, when I worked for a lawyer. He was dealing with very sensitive contracts. The contracts were drafted with dotted lines instead of numbers and names. The numbers and names were added manually at the time of signing the deals, after which the whole confidentiality became irrelevant as the next day those mergers and acquisitions that have taken months to forge where public knowledge.

  3. wxWidget helps application adapt to the reflexes specific of each platform without the need to re-invent the wheel.

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