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Should A Web Site Be Friendly Or A Good Tool?


In this thoughtful article titled "The 'Computer As Assistant' Fallacy", Dan Bricklin discusses the movement toward making the computer an assistant to the user, as opposed to a powerful tool that is mastered by the user.

He writes

"This type of thinking strikes me as strange. We don't ask for our automobiles to be more natural and intelligent, nor do we call for the next generation of cars to be like chauffeurs. With cars, we talk about responsiveness, comfort, power, cargo size, and safety. Tools are effective and appropriate to the task. Learning to use them is part of being human."
Dan Bricklin originated the idea for the electronic spreadsheet; every other spreadsheet program (such as Excel and Lotus 1-2-3) are merely derivative products from the first spreadsheet program, VisiCalc. VisiCalc is the archetype for the "killer application" or "killer app."


How is this relevant to what kind of a web site you have? There is a lot of discussion about how web sites need to be easy to use, or how they need to "help" customers. Many have sought some sort of artificial intelligence solution; AskJeeves is an early example of an interface in which customers could ask plain English questions and get some sort of answer. Other "virtual assistant" programs seek to provide an online personality that will answer questions.

One of the most popular "applications" for making your web site helpful this past year is to "cheat" and let a salesperson type in answers to customer questions in a kind of chat mode.

All this is done to make the web site easier to use or friendlier for customers.

Bricklin's argument (carried onto the web) is that web sites don't necessarily need to be "good assistants" who understand us and carry out tasks for us. They need to be fast, powerful, reliable tools that let customers be in control and doing the things that customers want to do.


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