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News, How-tos, and assorted Views on Accordance Bible Software.

Friday, March 10, 2006  

Usability and Familiarity

At the start of this week, I made a distinction between programs with a "steep learning curve" and those for which there is simply "a lot to learn." I then argued that while Accordance users have a lot to learn, the consistency of the interface reduces the learning curve and makes it easier to master new features. Rubén Gómez of Bible Software Review picked up on this discussion and added his own thoughts:

Reading [David's] post I was reminded of my own experience with what I sometimes call "the triple crown" (Accordance, BibleWorks and Logos). I have been a user of these three excellent programs for quite a while. I've seen them grow and become standards in different areas, but the one thing they all share in common is that they have become very complex packages. Any given user who is familiar with one of these will most likely think that the other two have a "steep learning curve" if/when they are exposed to them.

One of Rubén's readers then commented:

Ruben, your comments on the learning curve of current Bible software, especially as it pertains to moving from one package to another correlates to a recent article I read on usability in software:

http://www.joelonsoftware.com/de...stDraft/ 03.html

The correlations the author draws from moving between a Windows and a Mac are applicable here, I think.

In the linked article, the author defines usability as follows: Something is usable if it behaves exactly as expected. He goes on to paint a scenario of a Windows user being frustrated with the "clunky interface" of a Mac because the Mac doesn't operate the way he has been trained to expect. For this user, the Mac is less usable than Windows because it is unfamiliar.

I hear arguments like this all the time, and there is certainly some validity to them. The users who often have the hardest time getting their minds around the Accordance interface tend to be the long-time users of other Bible programs. The people who instinctively double-click to do X and press a particular key-combo to do Y may get frustrated because Accordance doesn't do what they're used to. Yet generally, once these users grasp the overall concepts behind the Accordance interface, they start to see that Accordance actually makes their Bible study easier than it's ever been.

It's certainly true that the more deeply entrenched someone is in a particular way of doing things, the harder it will be for them to unlearn existing habits and adapt to new interface conventions. Yet those who draw a correlation between usability and familiarity don't typically stop there. They go on to imply that all interfaces are somehow created equal; that it's impossible to say "Brand X is easier to use than Brand Y" because "it all depends on what you're used to."

In my opinion, that's a copout—one which is often used to excuse bad design. Sure, people can be trained to use poorly designed interfaces, but that doesn't mean we can't evaluate one operating system or software program as being easier to use than another.

At OakTree Software, we do our best not to hide behind the that's-easy-for-you-because-it's-what-you're-used-to argument. We believe there are some objective criteria by which to assess a program's usability, and we want to make sure Accordance meets those criteria. I'll talk more about some of those criteria in upcoming posts, and I'll try to give some practical examples of how we've done our best to meet them. This, I hope, will accomplish three things beyond merely being an interesting theoretical discussion:

  1. It will give you an "inside look" into some of the thinking behind the Accordance interface.
  2. It will expose some of you to easier ways of doing things in Accordance than you may currently be using.
  3. It will help you better understand the way the Accordance interface works, so that when you explore a new feature you haven't used before, you'll be better equipped to anticipate how it should work.

Whew! That ought to keep me busy blogging for a while! :-)

As a former user of both Logos and Bibleworks (I don't plan on going back either) one thing that I think is important to mention in this discussion is the quality and availability of good user documentation and training material. Personally, the "steep learning curve" has felt steep to me because of a lack of a good guide up the hill. I think that may be one reasons that this blog and the online forums are so helpful! I know that I am certainly thankful for them!


Jeremy Archer

I used MacBible 3.0, which is still sitting in my Dock and only runs under Classic, until last summer. Even though it is one of the predecessors to Accordance, MacBible has a slightly different entry notation for searching verses. The very first roadblock I hit in Accordance was in trying to display a single verse and getting a "The book [Gen3] cannot be found" error message. It turned out that MacBible does not need spaces to parse a verse reference, while Accordance depends on them.

I have been around Macs long enough to know that there had to be another solution...but the perception of a "steep learning curve" often comes from the initial experience. If I were developing, I would be thinking of the entry points for a new user--and would offer that user help for their initial experience with the application.

Out of the box, Accordance launches with a default English Bible version and a search box. The search box is prefilled with a default "*" (which the more geeky of us recognize as a "find everything" wildcard).

Why not have a windoid open on first launch that does the following:

1. Explains how to display a Bible verse and what the syntax is to search for it. Perhaps this could be by example: "(for example: genesis 1 or gen 1:3)".

2. Points the user to the Help menu and a "Getting Started" topic. This is crucial for a Mac audience that is so used to diving into applications without first reading the docs.

3. Offers a checkbox to turn itself (the windoid) off for future launches.

I thoroughly agree that Accordance is high on the usability scale...but it does require learning a little notational syntax. The first-use experience is just as important for post-graduate professionals as it is for kindergartners. :-)

Another former Logos fanatic, thoroughly converted to Accordance. The forums and now the blog offers a very rich learning environment. I scour both pretty much daily and have found answers to questions I could not articulate. This is a very fulfilling part of the Oak Tree support experience. And it must save you staffers from hundreds of almost identical emails or support calls. Great concept!

About the following statement:

Something is usable if it behaves exactly as expected.

I do run into this often with Accordance. I am not a convert from some other bible software. I am a user of other current Mac software, such as Safari and Excel. Both of these programs use tabs to display what would otherwise be multiple windows, just as Accordance does. I use Accordance to prepare for Sunday School and Bible Study lessons, so I do my research ahead of time and leave a workspace set up with perhaps ten tabs. In order to be useful, I have to name each tab, so I don't have to fumble through them in class. Every time I try to name a tab, I try to do it by control-clicking on the tab. This is what I expect to work. I think that I expect this both because Excel does it this way, and also because it just makes sense. The fact that Accordance doesn't respond to control-clicking a tab usually makes me roll my eyes and then look for the menu option and try to memorize the shortcut keystroke.

Accordance does a few things in its own way, where other popular and current non-bible software has set a de facto standard. Of course Accordance predates some of this software, but that doesn't invalidate the de facto standard.

I would like to see Accordance look around more at the current software environment of common productivity applications, and incorporate common methods for user interaction.

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