Amongst a few gems, the stand-out pitch was ‘Write about something Retro’, because, as I’m sure you’re aware, there is a big ‘Retro’ trend happening right now (if you didn’t know, now you’ll be able to talk confidently about it with your colleagues safe it the knowledge that it’s bang on trend).
Pondering the idea of ‘retro’, I perused my bookshelves in search of inspiration. It was there that I stumbled across an original 1986 instruction manual for ‘Sidekick’ produced by Borland (who, I’m glad to report are still trading at Borland.com).
‘Sidekick’ was the first piece of Desktop software that I owned. 1987 was the year I purchased it. In retro terms, that equates to the original year for the Rubix Cube, ‘Withnail and I’, ‘Dirty Dancing’ and Acid House smileys..
Why I kept the manual I don’t know, certainly the computer and associated floppy disks were long consigned to the tip. But, as I flicked through the manual it occurred to me that it provided an interesting benchmark to show how far things have come in the space of a relatively small number of years, not in terms of the Internet per-se but how we interact with software and the notion of user experience.
Installing the software was akin to entering a darkened room and staying there, alone, for several hours. There were 14 diskettes that needed to be loaded in sequence, each taking minutes to load, the process accompanied by whirring and chirruping as the disks were read. Fraught with fear, in case the disks were loaded in the incorrect order or the final summation, once the process was complete, indicated that there was a ‘disk error’ and the whole process would need to be repeated.
The Sidekick Manual came at an interesting time, as users were trending away from being home-based programmers, to people who just wanted to write, calculate or do some other task without having to understand how to write Basic. The manual tries to bridge this gap, and offers tantalising content such as it’s description of one of the basic calculator feature ‘This is a normal, everyday business pocket calculator…However, it also offers special features for programmers’. Oh, how I wanted to unlock those special features!
Chapter 1 of the manual ‘Getting started’ has five pages of content before you reach the milestone of ‘Finally – start Sidekick’. The next Chapter is about taking your ‘Sidekick for a Ride’, detailing how to open up the Notepad, and using the shortcut keys. One of the features profiled is the F4 ‘Import Data from screen’ which is described as ‘a very exciting feature; it allows you to take text from the screen and put it into the NotePad! When you ht F4, the Notepad disappears, but don’t be afraid, it will come back’. Sadly the re-assuring tone failed to reduce my anxiety levels when using the feature, although the notion of ‘copy and paste’ is perhaps one of the most common utilities we now take for granted.
The friendly, personable tone extends throughout the manual. Including the Calendar description which offers the perhaps overly optimistic text, that once you’ve opened the application ‘You may now move through time’.
From a UX perspective, one of the interesting facets of Sidekick was the use of function keys, which were deployed for every conceivable function. The reason being that the Mouse still wasn’t the prevalent form of Computer Human Interaction at that point (that didn’t really happen until the late 80′s) so there was no easy way to control the on-screen navigation, so instead the user had to jump up and down the screen and call different utilities by a mind-boggling array of function and CTRL keys, often requiring three or more keys to be depressed simultaneously, in a Twister-style approach to keyboard interaction.
Hardware notwithstanding, the manual is interesting in its use of a ‘human’ tone to try and reassure users that the software was their friend and not something to be fearful of. Supporting this, the manual provides ‘Scenes from our lives‘ where Borland programmers write about typical behaviours and how Sidekick can help, generally by being by being faster and more efficient. This notion of putting the customer at the heart of the experience is central to the delivery of a good UX today, as is the approach of delivering applications that are intuitive for people to understand and apply.
The Sidekick Manual came with a pre-paid card slip for users to send their details back to Borland for marketing purposes. The form is styled to make it almost impossible to read due to minuscule text, and requiring programmer level knowledge of your hardware, asking for details such as your PC’s CPU and whether you had EMS/EEMS Memory or a Math coprocessor. But you can see where Borland were going, identifying their customers and segmenting them based upon their attributes, presumably with a plan to send them targeted marketing material or to identify trends in their customer base to guide future product development.
It’s been 27 years since I purchased Sidekick, but it’s possible to see a direct correlation between that software manual and today’s web applications, perhaps not in terms of the technology per-se but in the sense of communicating a friendly, helpful experience, that’s intuitive and built by people who want to make your life easier. The sidekick manual, to me, evokes that sense of bushy programmers, sitting in a sunny Californian business park, akin to an early Steve Jobs, exuding hope. Wanting to make a difference to society and recognising that they could do it via coding, and by communicating to their users in human terms that were both relevant and contextual.
Why ‘Ready Player One’ as the title to this blog? Well, for reference, this is the title of a thumping retro Sci-Fi novel, based on early arcade games (especially the 80′s) that have this title as the ‘Call to action’.