This blog represents most of the newspaper columns (appearing in various Colorado Community Newspapers and Yourhub.com) written by me, James LaRue, during the time in which I was the director of the Douglas County Libraries in Douglas County, Colorado. (Some columns are missing, due to my own filing errors.) This blog covers the time period from April 11, 1990 to January 12, 2012.

Unless I say so, the views expressed here are mine and mine alone. They may be quoted elsewhere, so long as you give attribution. The dates are (at least according my records) the dates of publication in one of the above print newspapers.

The blog archive (web view) is in chronological order. The display of entries, below, seems to be in reverse order, new to old.

All of the mistakes are of course my own responsibility.

Wednesday, April 3, 1996

April 3, 1996 - CUI Versus GUI and Document Quality

Like most business people these days, library staff depends on personal computers. We do what most folks do with them: word processing, spreadsheets, telecommunications, the occasional database, and the even more occasional graphic, in about that order.

According to the spec sheets, every time we buy a new computer, it is far more powerful than any of the computers we have bought before. But the work we do -- on the whole -- is the same.

It makes you wonder: is the quality of our work any different? Has the more powerful tool made a difference, or is it all just marketing hype?

Let's take word processing. For a long time, library staff had standardized on Microsoft Works for DOS. It came with just one manual, and did pretty much everything we wanted to do with a computer. Some of us still use it. Oh, and the program required 640K of memory, would run off a 1.2 megabyte floppy, and cost $89 per machine.

But DOS programs are passe'. Now everything is "graphical." In most respects, the way most new programs work -- whether they be for Windows 3.1, Windows 95, or the Macintosh -- is a whole lot like the way Works did. (That's because Works adopted a non- graphical version of the Macintosh menu system called CUI -- the Common User Interface.)

But these new programs are just different enough -- with file formats, fonts, borders, screen colors and the like -- that we're constantly having to move our old files into a new environment, and figure out the new way of doing things we were doing just fine before.

Now let's go back to the issue of quality. Back in 1990, I happened across a very interesting study. A group of college freshman were tested on "document quality." Half of them wrote using DOS-based word processors. The other half used word processors on the Macintosh system. The split was deliberate and controlled. The idea was to find out which approach to writing resulted in the better document.

The findings were surprising. The study, conducted by one M.P. Halio and summarized by a later researcher, concluded that "Macintosh writers tended to use a popular style -- brief paragraphs, short sentences, and simple words, including slang and colloquialisms. Macintosh users also chose less sophisticated topics, but they were more creative than IBM writers in formatting and illustrating their texts."

In other words, the Mac users mistook writing that looked good for good writing.

At the time, this filled me with a great deal of self- righteousness. After all, I used DOS word processors myself.

Alas. Another, far more rigorous and exhaustive study published in 1994 proved that in the short run (six weeks into a business communications class), yes, writers using the "character-based interface" of most DOS-based word processors seemed to demonstrate superior ratings in the areas of content and "mechanics" -- technical proficiencies.

But after five more weeks -- brace yourself -- all the differences disappeared. According to the author of the study, Shirley Kuiper, (in "Impact of computer-user interface on document quality," appearing in the Journal of Business Communications, April 1994, volume 31, number 2, beginning on page 125), "Overall GUI [graphical user interface] users performed neither better nor worse than CUI [character-based user interface] users."

So there you have it. We've all bought new machines. We've all struggled to learn new software. Most of this software requires roughly 16 times as much memory and hard disk space as the old software. The time it takes to load the program, or to print a document, is about the same as it used to be. The software cost has doubled.

To be fair, other studies suggest that the GUI has made us more productive. It takes less time to train people. It takes a little less time to generate the copy. People tend to LIKE their computers a little more.

But the quality of our documents -- WHAT we're saying as opposed to how it looks -- is unchanged.

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