TCS Daily

'Version Fatigue'

By Glenn Harlan Reynolds - June 19, 2002 12:00 AM

I'm tired of learning how to do new things. Well, not really. But I've noticed that my tolerance for reading the manual and familiarizing myself with all the aspects of a new product or piece of software is much, much lower than it used to be.

I thought it might be age, but my youngest brother, who is 21, says he has the same problem. And it occurs to me: though he's a good deal younger than I am, we've been using computers, VCRs, and related technological items for about the same length of time -- since somewhere in the mid-1980s. And despite the difference in our ages, we've followed about the same progression from initial enthusiasm about learning all the ins and outs of new stuff to a jaded reluctance to even open a manual if we can help it, and an absolute unwillingness to learn how to use features we don't need right now.

Perhaps, as Indiana Jones observed in a different context, it's not the years, but the mileage. At least, that's my working theory at the moment. And I've coined a new term (at least, Google tells me it's new) to describe the problem: "version fatigue."

The first word processor I used was the late and largely unlamented Perfect Writer, which ran on a Kaypro CP/M machine. I pored over the manual, excited about all the stuff it did. (I still remember how to do things on Perfect Writer that I don't know how to do on Word or WordPerfect, though I'm pretty sure that's not because Perfect Writer was more capable). Even when I persuaded my law firm to switch from DisplayWrite III (ugh) to WordPerfect 4.2 (pretty damn good, except for some printing bugs), I spent a lot of time learning how to use WordPerfect.

Now it takes a lot to get me to actually study in advance. In some small part, this is a tribute to how easy it is to use most software (Syntrillium's Cool Edit Pro or Sonic Foundry's Acid Pro are so intuitive they really don't need manuals -- though Steinberg's Cubase has a gigantic manual and it's still unfriendly to use). But that's not the only place where this shows. I bought a new camcorder, for example, and could barely trouble myself to read the manual. There are lots of features in it that I may use someday -- at which point I'll learn them. But the odds are that I'll buy a new one before I use most of them, and the new one will be different anyway.

And that's where "version fatigue" sets in. Almost every piece of software is different from its predecessor version. Consumer electronics are never the same, and actually seem to be getting harder to use over time. (My 1986 RCA VCR has the best user interface I've encountered on a VCR. Naturally, nobody uses it anymore).

That's a pain in individual cases, but the big picture is even worse: by now, everyone but the very youngest has learned that time spent acquiring knowledge in this area is likely to be wasted. Think about all those tricks you learned for DOS 3.31, or Windows 95 -- they're mostly useless now. Version fatigue comes from the accumulated realization that most knowledge gained with regard to any particular version of a product will be useless with regard to future generations of that same product. (And, of course, it's even worse when products change - those VisiCalc tricks you were once so proud of are entirely worthless now, except to demonstrate your old-timer credentials).

It's thus entirely rational not to want to learn this stuff until you absolutely need to use it. But that makes life more frustrating, since it puts you in "learning mode" when you're trying to do something new and possibly stressful, and it makes life tougher on the people who design and sell software and gadgets since they get a lot of complaints from customers that really stem from customers' -- entirely rational -- unwillingness to spend much time reading the manual.

Of course, the latter can only be viewed as justice, since they're the ones who create the problem in the first place. But now that products are smart, a little more attention to consistency in user interfaces is called for -- or the ability to choose an old interface. A few products support that now to some degree, but more should. And I imagine a label on the box reading: "All the stuff you learned how to do on the old version works the same way here" would do a lot to help sales.

Somebody should give this a serious try. It's time to do something about version fatigue.



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