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A Computer User's Manifesto

The sooner the software industry adopts these common-sense precepts, the better.

Did you ever get so angry with your computer that you wanted to take a baseball bat to it? Have you ever been stumped by some error message that bore no relationship to anything in the manual or the online help? Have you ever been cold in winter?

A leading computer-industry researcher feels your frustration. Clare-Marie Karat is a PhD psychologist who evaluates the way people interact with their computers and designs what the industry calls human interfaces at IBM's (IBM) Thomas J. Watson Research Center in Hawthorne, N.Y. The problem, as she sees it, is simple: The engineers and computer scientists who design hardware and software know little about the needs and frustrations of consumers. ''The technologists get far into the design of a system without really understanding who the target users are, the work that they do, and the context in which they do that work,'' Karat says. By the time feedback comes in, it's ''way too late.''

The results can be annoying, such as the progress indicator that claims a job is 90% finished when it's only half-done. Or you can have a catastrophe: programs or computers that don't work as promised or don't work at all.

To remedy this situation, Karat is challenging the industry to endorse a 10-point User's Bill of Rights:

1. The user is always right. If there is a problem with the use of the system, the system is the problem, not the user.

2. The user has the right to easily install software and hardware systems.

3. The user has the right to a system that performs exactly as promised.

4. The user has the right to easy-to-use instructions for understanding and utilizing a system to achieve desired goals.

5. The user has the right to be in control of the system and to be able to get the system to respond to a request for attention.

6. The user has the right to a system that provides clear, understandable, and accurate information regarding the task it is performing and the progress toward completion.

7. The user has the right to be clearly informed about all system requirements for successfully using software or hardware.

8. The user has the right to know the limits of the system's capabilities.

9. The user has the right to communicate with the technology provider and receive a thoughtful and helpful response when raising concerns.

10. The user should be the master of software and hardware technology, not vice-versa. Products should be natural and intuitive to use.

All of Karat's proposals are important, but the first point is the key to all and amounts to a sweeping change in attitude among the folks who produce hardware and software. I don't know how often tech-support people, not knowing that I was a technology columnist, have given me the impression that it was my fault if a product didn't work. I've sometimes given up on hardware and software because I couldn't get through the installation. I often hear from bewildered readers who get shuttled back and forth between hardware and software companies, each claiming that a problem is the other's fault.

Companies have paid lip service to ease of use, with useful but superficial changes such as color-coded cables. But on a deeper level, they don't realize that their customers aren't the tech-savvy enthusiasts who gave the industry its impetus. As Karat puts it: ''The profile of the people who use systems has changed, while the systems, and the culture in which they have developed, have not adjusted.''

NEW PRIORITY. Currently, just under half of U.S. households have computers. Rates are much lower in the rest of the world. To get wider dispersion, manufacturers have to make PCs and their software as user-friendly as toasters. That's going to take time, because the industry first has to change its way of thinking and then has to redesign products from the bottom up, with ease of use as the No.1 priority.

It's easy to quibble over the specifics of one or another of Karat's proposed items. I'd add a point requiring all error messages to be comprehensible and explained in detail. But the important thing is for the computer industry to begin a dialogue that would lead to formal adoption of something very much like this User's Bill of Rights.

I'd like to know what you think of the idea.

E-mail your comments to me at tech&, or fax (202) 383-2125.