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Wash your hands after reading this manual

by Geoff Hart

Previously published as: Hart, G. J. 2001. Wash your hands after reading this manual.

What could be more natural than grappling with Windows every day? For one thing, a natural function that even we ostensibly anal-retentive editors perform daily. Sadly, the parallels between defecatoria and Windows are something each of us can understand on a rather visceral level—and both pose a variety of surprisingly similar challenges.

Though you wouldn’t think it, washrooms share with Windows the answer to that proverbial (and trademarked) question “Where do you want to go today?” At home, as at work, the answer frequently becomes “you can’t get there from here”, often because there are too many users for the available workstations. On the road, it’s worse. Finding a seat at the mall can make surviving Survivor seem easy, since architects excel at the game of “hide the toilets”—usually setting them inconveniently in side corridors, even though any graduate of Usability 101 would recommend locations closer to hand for such frequently used facilities.

As with many computers, the documentation is inadequate. Users of bathrooms and computers both soon learn to depend on power users for guidance and—when these experts are unavailable—rely on consistency in the interface metaphor to get the job done. Yet when the metaphor changes, this leads to trouble, as the North American urbanite travelling to Europe, a third-world country, or Grandpa’s remote backwoods cabin can attest. The challenge of migrating from Word to FrameMaker pales in comparison.

Indeed, figuring out the controls probably poses the greatest difficulty we face in life. Each new program sends us in search of how to customize the software: are the “preferences” (or “configuration” or “options” or “settings”) under the File, Edit, or Tools menu? As any Québecois parent can attest, I faced similar challenges in teaching my children to identify the hot and cold taps on the bathroom sink. In Quebec, of course, doing so requires mastering two languages and sometimes odd hybrids of both: you’ll see standard English H and C labels, but the French C (chaud) and F (froid) are more common, and odd combinations of both systems sometimes appear when the plumber ran out of unilingual labels and had to make do with whatever was handy.

Standardizing the positions of the taps would certainly help, but having been burned before, I’ve taught the kids that plumbers can’t be trusted to agree on which side should host the hot tap; most of the time, it’s not an issue, but every now and then you get a surprise. You have to wonder if the designers of computer interfaces are really frustrated plumbers who went looking for easier work. And all those who share living quarters have faced the archetypical domestic battle over whether to hang the toilet paper with the free end against or away from the wall, assuming the men in the household have been domesticated well enough to understand the necessity for replacing a spent roll. Wouldn’t it be nice if toilet paper manufacturers took a cue from the computer industry and “keyed” toilet paper rolls so there was no possibility of installation errors? I’m the first to admit that nonstandard standards were invented by the computer industry, but they also gave us standard cabling systems so at least we know which end of a cable is up.

Other issues abound. Just what can you put down the hole anyway? Like many computer issues, this seems so obvious it requires no documentation, yet all apartment tenants have faced midnight plumbing calls when someone in the building tried—and failed—to dispose of something unflushable. (Alligators in New York, for instance.) With bathrooms, there's no printed documentation, no online help, no free technical support included with the purchase, and no alternative but to work out the rules yourself—and if you guess wrong, you’re gonna have to hire an expert consultant to get the system working again. As a veteran of failed attempts to uninstall software, I think it’s time to finally replace the Windows “recycle bin” icon with its spiritual kin: a toilet.

With both bathrooms and computers, limited resources lead to ugly situations. Public facilities rarely offer enough women’s stalls to avoid long lines, and when you do find an open seat, you’re likely to find insufficient system resources: toilet paper, soap, and water. (Is it just me, or are bathrooms sounding increasingly like Windows?) And what of system maintenance? Failure to clean your system regularly leads to crashes, visits by expensive troubleshooters, and potential virus problems. Cleaning the toilet monthly, even if it seems unnecessary to the average male toilet owner, is no more optional than updating your computer’s antivirus utilities, periodically running a “disk doctor” program, and flushing those inaccurately named “temporary” files that seem to breed on your computer when nobody’s looking.

Speaking of utilities, “one size fits all” is a design decision that torments each of us in both the computer environment and the washroom. For example, toilet paper often sits directly across from the toilet—well within reach of adult arms, but a real problem for short-armed kids. I recently added a second roll atop the toilet so my kids wouldn't fall off while reaching for the paper, thinking all the while of the myriad utilities I’ve had to add to my computer over the years to coerce it into meeting my needs.

So the next time you complain about the usability of your computer, think of this: despite patently suboptimal design, computers are really no more difficult to use than your washroom, and the washrooms have been around for an awful lot longer. The bottom line—you should pardon my choice of words—is that despite manifest flaws in both technologies, each lets you accomplish surprising quantities of work. And technical writers take heed: this appalling gap in end-user documentation could just be the next million-selling “for Dummies” book.

If you’ll excuse me, I find I’ve suddenly got to go to the computer...

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