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The old mail bag had a melt-down this month. I have seen the problem, and its name is Netscape. They didn't follow the rules for the Macintosh, so, when you do a clean install to upgrade your system, all your mail goes away. (Sigh.)

They are aware of the problem and I am happy to report that they are currently working to eliminate it in future releases. In the meantime, most of the lost mail I had already answered in the January issue, but a few I had not. One reader suggested that my time figures in Efficiency of the User were awry. I had suggested that punching 111 on a microwave oven would result in a cooking time of 1 minute and 11 seconds, rather than 111 seconds. That has been my experience on my three ovens. Other ovens may interpret that time differently. (Interestingly, 1 minutes and 11 seconds is, of course, only 71 seconds. Therefore, 111 on these ovens is a smaller value than 91. Weird and bizarre base-60 math represented in base-10, and yet no one is confused. Context is everything.)

I also received a cogent and thoughful letter from an engineer at Microsoft. It's sort of OK that the letter got lost, because he had asked I not publish it. On the other hand, it was a great letter, and I wish I had it to read over.

But enough of the past that cannot be recovered (due to my wife's unreasonable insistence we squander the money I so desperately need for a tape back-up on frivolous non-essentials, like shoes for the children.)


Hi Tog,

What the heck does this little symbol mean? I see in front of some links on your site. I see by the file name that it's an "anchor" and I can see that the black part does resemble an anchor. I'm not sure what the little purple thing is. Even though I know it is an anchor, I'm not sure I know what it means. Am I in a sort of postmodern condition, a semiotic quandary..where the signifier is separated from the signified, or am I just too stupid to know what this thing means?


Um, I think it's that first one, the semiotic thing. The symbol means the place the link is going to take you is on the same page you're on. The dead purple thing is a downward-pointing arrow. It sucks. I know that. I just haven't come up with anything better. Surely someone out there can help. Both I and the industry need some way to indicate within-page links, so people don't lose their sense of location.


Generic Web Browsers vs. Real Applications


Thank you, thank you, thank you a thousand times for your Maxmizing Windows article!

Not for the web design wisdom, but as an outstanding example of the UI problems that come from stuffing applications into web browsers. Currently, IMHO, web browsers are an appropriate mechanism for application delivery *ONLY* when an application must be made available to the public (or rather all networked computer users) at large. While the approaching universality of web browsers is unmatched by any other platform, that singular advantage comes with an amazing set of disadvantages.

What I’m getting at here is that there is a perception problem out there--that the web is what’s “new” and “better” and “sexy” and “cutting edge” ad nauseum, and thus all new applications should be web-based. In many cases where an application does not need to be available to the “public” or a large number of users, where the application will be used every day instead of only rarely, the better solution is a cross-platform custom application. (The application should use TCP/IP for communications and be available for download via a web browser, thus taking advantage of the lower-level of universal connectivity.)

So next time I’m talking to a client who needs to provide an application (of at lest moderate complexity) to a handful of users at each of a handful of business partners and who thinks they want a web application, I’ll fall back on your article instead of stammering as I try to figure out how to politely say: “BUT THAT WILL SUCK”!

Scott Ribe

I'm interested in what others have to say on this subject. Are the generic browsers filling all your needs?

How Hyper is Hyper Enough?

My superiors want an intranet focused on user searches to retrieve content. However, it’s also necessary for a user to browse for content. Traditionally (at least in our intranet) browsing relied on a hierarchical system where content generally needed to reside in a particular location in order to be browsed. For example, a user would need to go to the Marketing section of the intranet in order to view marketing materials for a specific product. The same product would have its specs in a different department website. This makes it difficult to browse for content consistenly.

My superiors would like to get away from this approach and allow users to browse all content on the intranet no matter where it is physically located. What we are attempting is a combination of categorizing content dynamically in a form-based environment.

For example, a user goes to a “Browse Product” page. A form allows the user to search either “custom” or “standard” products. The user clicks “custom products”. This returns two lists. The first list contains very “generic” options, for example a catalog with every single custom product. The second list would be more precise, for example it may contain a list of custom products. Clicking on a particular product would then return two more lists: the “generic” list and another list specific to that product. The first list may contain a product brochure. The second list may contain that particular product’s maketing materials, specs sheets, sales prices, inventory etc. in which the user could click to get more options (ie inventory levels for factory A, factory B etc) This process would continue allowing the user to “browse” while offering ever increasingly specific information.

I have several issues with such a system. First, how are these classifications to be created and maintained? How does a user know if the “generic” option would contain the information he/she is seeking? Does this “drill down” approach that offers many possible categories work better than several “parallel” drill down methods? In other words is it more efficient to drill down looking for marketing materials on all products or go after a specific product and see if marketing materials exist for that particular product?

Maybe you can give me some insight on categorizing content for multiple purposes and allowing that content to be accessed without actually doing a direct search for it.
Andrew Zimmerman

The entire benefit of hypertext is the ability to present and enable access to the same material multiple ways. That doesn't mean you need not have a clear and obvious structure to your website. It just means that the user doesn't have to figure out the one true path to an individual nugget of information.

Let me give examples of websites that err on both sides. If you follow a path on the Apple site, you are very likely to get to a page that will explain in exquisite detail exactly why you should install a particular piece of software on your computer. However, the path to installation is located somewhere else, at the far end of the Apple universe called Installerland, and you will spend the next 15 minutes finding it. No reason exists for not having the specific installer coupled to the argument for installation as well as having it with all its installer breatheren in Installerland. has achieved the other extreme. In their new DVD section, they have movies broken down into a number of categories. For example, the comedy section is categorized thusly:

  • General (50 bestsellers)
  • Animation (5 bestsellers)
  • By Decade
  • Cult Films (10 bestsellers)
  • Farces (7 bestsellers)
  • Mishaps (45 bestsellers)
  • Musical Comedies (6 bestsellers)
  • Recommended (50 bestsellers)
  • Romantic Comedies (50 bestsellers)
  • Satires (15 bestsellers)
  • Slapstick (45 bestsellers)
  • Spoofs (22 bestsellers)

If your goal is to find Sleepless in Seattle, you are in luck. You can find it under a variety of headings, including By Decade and Romantic Comedies. However, if your goal is to browse all the comedies, you are in trouble, because you are going to run across the same movies over and over again.

The lesson here is that, as you provide more and more redundant ways to access information, don't leave out the basic, guaranteed way to browse entire categories without seeing the same items repeatedly.


PCs in Schools Revisited

I agree with you about PCs in schools, in general. I think, though,
there may be a more important use of the computer for school-age
children than word processing.

Properly guided, programming develops people's abilities to build
mental models, think abstractly, and predict logical consequences.
Programming >1000-line programs also develops people's ability to
decompose a complex problem into parts.

Kragen Sitaker

I have this theory that Kragen is a programmer.

It saddened me to read a couple months ago that boring subjects like calculus and the like actually do help develop people's mental discrimination to the point that they are less likely to think that space aliens are living in Quaker Oats just 'cause it sez so in the Weekly World News. Seems like a high price to pay, though. Now, I, myself, can think of nothing I would have rather done in school than to write a >1000-line program. Seriously. Two things concern me about making it mandatory, however. The first is that some other people I know would probably have preferred munching on a plate full of ground glass to writing a >1000-line program. The second is that the School System can undoubtably work up enough rules, regulations, and instructions to turn even this delightful task into a nightmare of drudgery.

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